COVID-19 to affect agricultural labour

Coronavirus travel bans to limit ag industry's reliance on backpackers

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STUCK: NSW Farmers Horticultural Committee chairman, Guy Gaeta said if travel restrictions continued, the industry may be able to employ casual workers from sectors impacted by the virus, like hospitality. Photo Jude Keogh.

STUCK: NSW Farmers Horticultural Committee chairman, Guy Gaeta said if travel restrictions continued, the industry may be able to employ casual workers from sectors impacted by the virus, like hospitality. Photo Jude Keogh.

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Travel bans to impact picking and sowing in NSW.

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TRAVEL restrictions due to Coronavirus could lead to labour shortages for agricultural industries that rely on overseas workers during key periods like sowing or fruit-picking.

Griffith and District Citrus Growers' Association secretary, Vito Mancini, said the busiest period for orange growers was in around two months when the Navel harvest was underway.

"Signs are that our big markets, China and Japan, are still keen to do trade, but it's now up to us to make sure we can get oranges off the trees and into their shopping baskets," Mr Mancini said.

He said he was still getting up to three calls a week from backpackers looking for work.

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"The current round of backpackers are still in the country and they're still looking for their 88-days (of agricultural work to satisfy visa requirements)," Mr Mancini said.

"I daresay we might get through this season on the skin of our teeth, but if it's a prolonged issue I think we'll start seeing the backpackers dry up from around September, October."

He said a more immediate issue would be travel restrictions on seasonal workers from the Pacific Islands.

"There's a lot of rules involved with hiring seasonal workers, you have to contract them for at least three months, so smaller operations like myself, we rely more on backpackers because we can't guarantee that work, but the corporates can," he said.

"They'll then probably come into our pool and get in more backpackers, which might put pressure on us.

"But it's all an unknown at the moment, we're all trying to guess and put the right strategies into place," Mr Mancini said.

NSW Farmers Horticultural Committee chairman, apple and cherry grower, Guy Gaeta agreed that at this stage it looked like there would be enough backpackers to keep the industry going for the next six months.

"The worry will be if this keeps going, especially in eight to ten months when the cherries and stone fruits start," Mr Gaeta said.

"I employ about 60 people for four weeks and out of that I have around three Australians."

Could out-of-work casuals fill the gap? 

MR Gaeta said if overseas workers weren't able to enter the country for a prolonged period, the industry may be able to employ casual workers from sectors impacted by the virus, like hospitality.

GrainGrowers president and cropper, Brett Hosking, agreed that growers would be happy to welcome Australian workers from other industries.

"If they're keen to learn, keen to get involved in agriculture, grains offer a lot of opportunities and growers would be happy to train them up," Mr Hosking said.

He said with sowing coming up, labour shortages due to travel restrictions was a topic of conversation in the grains industry.

"WA growers, in particular, have a fairly strong reliance on backpacker labour forces, helping with sowing and harvest," Mr Hosking said.

The story COVID-19 to affect agricultural labour first appeared on The Land.

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