Coronavirus: Closed borders pose worker shortage threat to Australian harvest

Border closures are just the latest blow for a sector that's still reeling from years of prolonged drought.
Border closures are just the latest blow for a sector that's still reeling from years of prolonged drought.PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG) - Australia's grappling with a farm labour shortage just weeks from the start of the country's winter grain harvest, which is tipped to be the biggest in years following several drought-affected seasons.

Restrictions imposed on state and international borders to stem the spread of coronavirus have left a shortfall of thousands of workers across the agriculture sector, which relies on backpackers and temporary visa holders to fill seasonal roles.

"It's going to take a bit to slay this beast," National Farmers Federation chief executive officer Tony Mahar said of the labour shortage. "It's a complex problem, it's not a new problem, it's been exacerbated by Covid, obviously."

Border closures are just the latest blow for a sector that's still reeling from years of prolonged drought as well as the impact of the country's escalating trade tensions with China. Industry groups fear that if restrictions are not eased, produce could perish and animal welfare could be put at risk.

Mango growers in the country's north, as well as citrus and wool producers, have already been hit by the worker shortage.

"We absolutely have to have it sorted by harvest, the crop has to come off and it has to come off in a timely fashion," Mr Brett Hosking, a Victorian farmer and chairman of industry group GrainGrowers, said by phone.

Still, there's reason for optimism, said Mr Mahar and Mr Hosking. State governments pledged to develop a code to loosen internal border restrictions for agricultural workers, which will be considered at a meeting of state, territory and federal government leaders within two weeks, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Friday (Aug 21) .

Meanwhile, a pilot programme has been introduced to allow as many as 170 workers from Vanuatu to enter the country to harvest mangoes in the Northern Territory, amid fears fruit could be left to rot without extra labour.

And Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said, in an interview on ABC's Insiders programme Sunday, that hundreds of skilled shearers could also potentially be flown from New Zealand to help in the wool industry.


The New South Wales government has also launched the Help Harvest NSW recruitment programme to try and bridge the gap. With about six weeks until the state's harvest, it faces a shortage of 3,500 to 5,000 workers, the state's Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall said in a statement.

"Our state's farmers cannot afford to miss out on the financial uplift that comes from a strong harvest," he said. "Get off your bum and get into agriculture - we need you."

However, it's not always possible for Australians to take up such roles, said Mr Hosking, as they are often in remote areas, and require compatible skills, including mechanical and driving experience.

"For many Australians who never really experience farm life or fairly remote areas where our crops are grown, it's a pretty big step and a pretty courageous step" to take on farm work, he said.