As the COVID-19 pandemic closed Australia's borders to foreigners, local farmers in Manjimup began seeing a rise in the number of backpackers desperately looking for work.
Harvey Giblett is owner-manager of Newton Brothers Orchards, which is the second biggest orchard operation in the state and heavily reliant on foreign workers during harvest. His orchard is one of the biggest employers in the highly productive food region of Manjimup.
Giblett has not seen an exodus of his itinerate workforce as borders close amid the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies. Instead, he has been inundated with backpackers desperate for work. He told abc.net.au: "A lot of people are coming through every day, and with coronavirus we've basically had to put up signs and tell them to not come in and look for work, but to instead make contact by phone. People are still driving straight past the signs and seem to be quite desperate to get a job.”
ABARES farm survey points to shortages
Despite all this, horticulture is about to face severe shortages. The most recent ABARES farm survey suggests that about 50 per cent of the workforce for vegetable farms, and about 30 per cent for fruit and nut farms hold a visa of some sort.
COVID-19 has brought the migration of workers to a shuddering halt. Backpackers who had planned trips to Australia are abandoning them in their tens of thousands. It is also quite possible that COVID-19 has induced existing backpackers to leave, to get home on the advice of their governments, and before borders are closed. And Pacific countries have started pulling the plug on labour mobility, with Vanuatu, the biggest provider, banning new participation in Australia’s SWP and New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employment program.
With no new workers arriving, the obvious solution to prevent a horticultural labour shortage is to extend the stay of those temporary migrant workers already in Australia. Those whose visas are set to expire should, if they wish, be allowed to stay, and work, longer.