Fruits left to rot in Australian farms as sweeteners fail to lure work-holiday pickers

With just 71,704 visa holders at the end of September, there was a shortfall of 172,000 workers on farms across the country. PHOTO: UNSPLASH

SYDNEY – Farmers in Australia are being forced to leave crops to rot, due to a shortage of international backpackers and holidaymakers who typically work as pickers and farmhands during harvest seasons.

Before the pandemic, as many as 200,000 visitors came from around the world each year as part of Australia’s working holiday programme, which typically allows people aged up to 30 or 35 from various countries to work for at least 12 months. Many of these travellers would go to rural areas to take jobs on farms for up to six months picking fruit, vegetables and other produce.

The pandemic brought a sudden halt to the arrival of this international army of farmhands, but the agricultural sector hoped that the lifting of travel restrictions in the past year would prompt their return.

But farmers are, for a third year in a row, wringing their hands over the dearth of seasonal pickers, as Australia struggles to attract working holidaymakers.

There were just 71,704 visa holders in the country at the end of September, according to the latest official data. This spells a shortfall of 172,000 workers on farms across the country, the National Farmers’ Federation estimated.

Its president Fiona Simson told a summit in Canberra in September that the labour shortage was leading to “higher prices and supply disruptions on supermarket shelves”.

This warning is borne out in the government’s recent inflation data, which found that fruit and vegetable prices increased 16 per cent in the past year. These soaring prices helped to push the country’s annual inflation rate to 7.3 per cent, the highest level in more than 30 years.

To try to attract workers, farmers have been offering incentives such as free food or accommodation. But it does not appear to be working.

Mr Peter Ceccato, the general manager of Super Seasons, a grower and marketer of citrus fruit in New South Wales, said the firm needed 200 workers to pick its half a million citrus trees but could find only 20.

He said it offered to pay fruit pickers up to A$45 (S$41) an hour – compared with the minimum rate of A$26.73 an hour – but still could not find workers.

Describing the rotting oranges that line the rows of the firm’s orchards, Mr Ceccato told ABC News in October: “It’s heartbreaking... You see all this fruit on the ground, all the fruit on the tree, and you think, ‘Why am I doing this, to what end?’”

The federal government has introduced a range of incentives to try to entice working travellers, including lifting a rule that visa holders can work for the same employer for only up to six months. It also increased the quota per partner country this year by 30 per cent – so, for instance, the number allowed from Singapore has been increased from 2,500 to 3,250.

There were just 142 Singaporeans with working holiday visas in Australia as at the end of September, although this was an increase from September 2021’s 27.

The fear of further border closures has stymied travellers’ return, said Dr Kaya Barry, an expert on temporary migration at Griffith University who has been researching the decline in the number of working holidaymakers arriving since the pandemic.

This is especially as Australia became known for its strict travel curbs during the first two years of the pandemic, she said.

Travellers also appeared to be concerned about “the federal government’s poor treatment of migrants during the pandemic, and Australia’s reputation more generally for exploiting backpackers”, Dr Barry noted in an article on The Conversation website.

“When the federal government shut the border in 2020, its message to temporary visa holders was to ‘go home’.”

Farming and agricultural bodies have urged the federal government to make it easier for working travellers to extend their visas or to be allowed to apply for permanent residency.

Dr Barry said the government should consider extending the duration of the visa, which lasts up to three years but must be renewed annually. She supported the push to consider allowing foreign farmworkers to apply for permanent residency.

“Many backpackers I’ve interviewed said they ‘feel part of the community’ and would happily remain in their farming jobs if allowed,” she said.

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