SHEPPARTON, Australia – Peter Hall ran his hand over Gala apples sitting in a wooden crate on his orchard in South East Australia, lamenting the yellow tint of the fruits which would ideally be crunchy red and green.
With borders closed to backpackers who do much of the country’s agricultural work, Mr Hall was short of 15 workers. It had left him running against the clock. Just a few more days on the tree, and apples can be relegated to low-profit juice.
“We have never faced such a labor shortage in my 40 years,” said Hall. “I suspect that with every harvest batch, we just won’t get there on time.”
“It’s extremely frustrating,” he added.
The pandemic has disrupted the pace of work and migration around the world. In Western Europe, for example, borders were tightened early last year, preventing seasonal workers from Eastern Europe.
But in isolated Australia, the pandemic has dealt a particularly severe blow, revealing the instability of the foundations of its agricultural industry, a growing $ 54 billion a year goliath that for years has been supported by the work of young people. passing foreigners.
Measures to keep the coronavirus out of the country have left Australia with a deficit of 26,000 farm workers, according to the country’s largest agricultural association. As a result, tens of millions of dollars in crops have been wasted from coast to coast.
In the state of Victoria, rows of spinach and rocket shoots, also known as rocket, were pushed back into the earth and peaches were sent to the shredder. In Queensland, citrus growers bulldozed acres of trees and left blueberries to rot. And in Western Australia, watermelons were cut and hollowed out.
This massive destruction has fueled growing calls for Australia to rethink how it secures the farm workforce, with many pushing for an immigration overhaul that would give farm workers a route to permanent residence. .
The current system was never designed to be a permanent solution to the workers’ struggles of farmers that have lasted for decades. But as the industry grew and fewer Australians were willing to harvest crops, the so-called backpacker scheme offered a lifeline.
Since 2005, the government has steered young travelers to farms by offering one to two year working holiday visa extensions for those who have completed three months of work in agriculture. Backpackers can earn extensions by working in other industries like construction or mining, but 90% do so through farm work.
In a typical year, more than 200,000 backpackers came to Australia, representing 80% of the country’s harvesting workforce, according to industry groups. Today, there are only 45,000 in the country, according to government data.
Attempts to fill the labor shortage with unemployed Australians have been largely unsuccessful. Only 350 candidates subscribes to a federal government program that provides grants of A $ 6,000, or approximately $ 4,600, to work in rural areas. An ultimate proposal from a state government for use prison labor was shelved after an outcry from farmers.
The federal government therefore sent workers to neighboring Pacific islands, which largely avoided the pandemic. This is part of an existing program which is one of Australia’s main sources of aid to the Pacific.
With border restrictions in place, arrangements have at times been complicated.
In January, after months of canvassing from the federal government and industry groups, Victoria agreed to hire 1,500 Pacific Island workers. They must first self-quarantine for two weeks on the island of Tasmania before being airlifted to Victoria. In return, 330 Tasmanians stranded abroad will be able to return to quarantine hotels in Victoria.
Nationwide, only about 2,400 workers have been airlifted into the country since the border was closed, according to the National Farmers Federation.
For years, industry groups have lobbied for a dedicated agricultural visa, but the idea has repeatedly encountered obstacles.
The last time he was seriously lifted, in 2018, he raised alarm in Pacific island countries that said it could divert money from their workers. Some academics have said such a move could lessen Australia’s influence in the region, allowing China to make greater inroads.
The idea was quietly put aside.
A dedicated and stable workforce would not only benefit farmers. It could also reduce the abuses that have become endemic under the temporary work system, according to researchers and unions.
“The workforce was easily exploitable and there was no protection,” Joanna Howe, expert on temporary labor migration at the University of Adelaide, said of the working holiday visa. . “It brought down wages and conditions in the industry. Non-compliance became the norm and, as a result, the locals left the industry. “
The abuses, revealed in a slew of media reports in recent years, have run the gamut.
“We have seen cases of sexual abuse, physical violence, passports taken against people’s will,” said Dan Walton, secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union. “We have seen all forms of questionable labor practices, from the scam on wages, the payroll deductions, the bogus deductions taken from people’s wages.”
Backpacker Kiah Fowler, 23 from Pennsylvania, arrived in Bundaberg, Queensland in March 2020 to pick strawberries after losing her hospitality job elsewhere in Queensland.
“There are some wonderful farmers, but I found myself in an area known to have some backpacker exploitation,” she said. “I was in desperate need of the money and thought it couldn’t be as bad as people were saying. It was.”
The contractor she worked for paid her A $ 19 an hour, or $ 14.75 – below the minimum casual wage of A $ 24 – and offered only two to four hours of work per day, she declared. The same entrepreneur charged her A $ 210 per week to stay in a cramped house with nine other backpackers.
She and the other backpackers, she said, knew we were taking advantage, “but during Covid, a lot of us were like, ‘What choice do we have? “” Finally, she quit work.
Ben Rogers, general manager of labor relations and legal affairs at the National Farmers’ Federation, admitted that the industry’s reputation for underpayment and abuse of workers is not completely overlooked.
But he added that the organization was doing what it could through quality assurance programs and called for new hiring regulations.
It is hoped that resolving these issues could help bring some Australians back into the industry. Farmers talk about changing the way the industry is viewed, starting in school, and technological advancements that would make it less labor intensive.
The Australian Workers’ Union has challenged the Fair Labor Commission to impose a minimum wage in the industry. He believes that a minimum wage would reduce the likelihood of underpayment and encourage a more local workforce.
But those potential solutions, along with changes in immigration rules, are years away, if they ever happen. Right now, farmers are grappling with national borders that were closed in March 2020 and are not expected to reopen until 2022.
The area around Shepparton, a town two hours north of Melbourne, where Mr Hall rushed to harvest his apples, is one of the hardest hit by the labor shortage.
Usually backpackers flock to Lake Victoria Park in the middle of town to use its free barbecue and set up tents and park vans. This year, however, it’s calm and quiet.
Hostels are also mostly empty.
An Australian, Brett Jones, 38, said he would return to a job in construction soon.
“With the build, in the end, you feel like you’ve accomplished something, rather than just filling a bin with pears for someone,” he said.
Further, he admitted, “I’m not very good at picking fruit.”
“My mind keeps wandering,” he said. “I keep thinking that there must be an easier way to make money.”