Horticulture

Border closures likely to impact fruit harvest labour

By Rodney Woods

Fruit growers will need to find alternatives to backpackers when harvest season comes around again in the Goulburn Valley, according to industry bodies.

Fruit Growers Victoria grower services manager Michael Crisera said the Seasonal Worker Program would become more important than ever, with borders likely to be closed to international visitors for some time.

“We need to look at the Seasonal Worker Program more closely as backpackers will be an issue,” Mr Crisera said.

“Europe has had real issues with their farm labour at the moment but we haven’t seen a shortage yet.

“It's unknown what we will see in the peak period of January, February and March.”

Apple and Pear Australia chief executive officer Phil Turnbull agreed the Seasonal Worker Program would become increasingly important for the industry.

“A large decrease in backpackers due to travel restrictions is a valid concern for employers in our industry ahead of the next harvest,” Mr Turnbull said.

“These issues have been raised with government and we are hoping that they are able to assist on the matter, in particular through utilising the Seasonal Worker Program, which has been a very successful initiative for all involved.”

With a shortage of backpackers likely, the Joint Standing Committee on Migration has launched an inquiry into the Working Holiday Maker program to ensure it is working effectively to support the tourism, health care and agriculture sectors during the COVID-19 economic recovery.

The committee will look at how backpackers can complement, rather than compete, with Australian workers laid off because of the pandemic.

Joint Standing Committee on Migration chair and NSW MP Julian Leeser said given the COVID-19 pandemic had effectively closed Australia’s borders and stopped the flow of working holiday makers, it was important to examine how this will impact the economy and look closely at the program to ensure it is working in Australia’s interest.

“The very clear focus at the moment must be on getting Australians back into work and how migration can support our economic recovery,” Mr Leeser said.

“We will be looking closely at the program to make sure it is supporting Australian jobs and making visa holders available to support businesses that need more people, particularly in regional communities which have relied on these workers in the past.”

The government has already made changes to allow Working Holiday Maker visa holders working in critical sectors — such as health care and agriculture — to stay longer with one employer and to be eligible for a further visa to continue working in these sectors.

In February, the government also made changes to allow backpackers to better assist with the recovery and rebuilding efforts following the bushfires that devastated many rural and regional communities.

Submissions to the inquiry will be accepted until July 24 and can be submitted at: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Migration/WorkingHolidayMaker