Farmers say the Victorian government’s new quarantine deal for harvest workers is a step in the right direction but won’t fix the sector’s labour shortages.
The Tasmanian and Victorian governments have brokered a swap arrangement that will involve Tasmania quarantining farm labourers heading for the Victorian harvest, while Victoria will provide quarantine facilities for overseas Tasmanians wanting to return home.
But the President of the Victorian Farmers Federation, Emma Germano, says the farm worker shortage was flagged with the government in March last year and growers are now being forced to leave crops to rot because there is no one to pick them.
“We are starting to see that bite,” she told AAP.
“It’s annoying enough when you lose a crop because of the weather but when it’s because of a worker shortage it’s even more frustrating.”
Attracting local workers to address critical labour shortages on farms has been a problem for much of the country, with harvest underway in many parts.
A new voluntary national register of crops lost due to the shortage has topped $43 million in the past month, with one Victorian vegetable grower reporting the loss of crops worth $850,000.
Under the Victoria-Tasmania deal, an initial 1500 harvest workers from the Pacific Islands will quarantine in Tasmania before going to work on Victorian farms.
In return, 330 Tasmanians who are stranded overseas will undergo 14-day quarantine in Victoria’s hotel quarantine system.
Tasmania has committed to the program for the first half of 2021, with the cost of the farm worker quarantine shared by the Victorian government and the farm industry.
But the states still need the federal government to sign off on the deal.
And the VFF says the Pacific Island labourers will only be available to work on some of the farms that need help due to visa restrictions.
Victoria’s agriculture minister Mary-Anne Thomas said this summer’s harvest had been difficult.
“What we’ve seen as a consequence of border closures is that the fruit and vegetable industry, which is so reliant on overseas workers, has faced some real challenges in harvesting their crops,” she said.
She said about 3000 Pacific Islanders would usually work on the Victorian harvest but even so, most harvest workers were backpackers.
“Many of the countries from which backpackers travel have been devastated by the coronavirus and we are not going to sacrifice the health of Victorians,” she said.
It’s estimated the 200,000 backpackers usually travelling in Australia is down to about 50,000.
Ms Thomas said the federal Jobseeker scheme had been acting as a disincentive for local workers to take up temporary harvest work because they would not receive Jobseeker for six weeks after finishing up a harvest job.
The Victorian government has faced some criticism for refusing to allow on-farm quarantine for overseas crop pickers.