SHEPPARTON, Australia – Peter Hall ran a hand over the gala apples in a wooden box in his orchard in southeast Australia, lamenting the yellow sheen of fruit that would ideally be crisp red and green.
With the borders closed to the backpackers who do much of the country’s farm labor, Mr. Hall employed only 15 workers. That had made him run against the clock. Just a few extra days on the tree, and apples can be referenced in juice for little profit.
“We have never seen such a labor shortage in my 40 years,” said Hall. “I suspect we just won’t get there in time for a lot of harvest.”
“It’s extremely frustrating,” he added.
The pandemic has disrupted the rhythm of work and migration around the world. In Western Europe, for example, the borders were tightened early last year to keep seasonal workers out of Eastern Europe.
But in isolated Australia, the pandemic has dealt a particularly hard blow, exposing the unstable foundation of its agricultural industry, a growing goliath of $ 54 billion a year that has been underpinned for years by the work of young, temporary foreigners.
Measures to keep the coronavirus out of the country have left Australia with a 26,000 farm worker deficit, according to the country’s leading 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 baby spinach and arugula, also known as arugula, have been plowed back into the ground and peaches have been sent to the shredder. In Queensland, citrus growers have leveled acres of trees and rotted blueberries. And in Western Australia, watermelons have been sliced open and dug under.
This tremendous devastation has led to increasing calls for Australia to reconsider farm labor security, and many are pushing for an immigration overhaul that would provide farm workers with a permanent residency route.
The current system should never be a permanent solution to the decades of labor disputes among farmers. But as the industry expanded and fewer Australians were willing to pick grain, the so-called backpacker program provided a lifeline.
Since 2005, the government has drawn young travelers to farms by offering a working holiday visa extension from one year to two for those who have worked in agriculture for three months. Backpackers can earn expansions by working in other industries like construction or mining, but 90 percent do so from farm work.
In a normal year, more than 200,000 backpackers would come to Australia, which is 80 percent of the country’s harvesting workforce, according to industry groups. According to the government, there are currently only 45,000 left in the country.
Attempts to fill the labor shortage with unemployed Australians have been largely unsuccessful. Only 350 applicants have signed up for a federal government program that offers grants of A $ 6,000 or approximately $ 4,600 to work in rural areas. A final proposal by a state government to use prison labor was postponed after a riot among farmers.
The federal government has flown in workers from nearby Pacific islands who have largely avoided the pandemic. It is part of an existing program that is one of Australia’s major resources for the Pacific.
With existing border restrictions, the regulations sometimes became confused.
After months of pressure from the federal government and industry associations, Victoria agreed in January to accept 1,500 Pacific island workers. They must first be quarantined for two weeks on the island of Tasmania before being flown to Victoria. In return, 330 Tasmanians stranded overseas can return via the quarantine hotels in Victoria.
Nationwide, only about 2,400 workers have been flown into the country since the borders were closed, according to the National Farmers’ Federation.
March 2, 2021, 10:15 p.m. ET
Industry groups have been pushing for a special agricultural visa for years, but the idea repeatedly encounters obstacles.
The last time it was seriously raised in 2018, it raised alarms in Pacific island nations that it might divert money away from their workers. Some scholars said such a move could reduce Australia’s influence in the region and allow China to make greater progress.
The idea was quietly put on hold.
A dedicated, stable workforce would not only benefit farmers. According to researchers and unions, this could also reduce the abuses that are widespread in the temporary work system.
“The workforce was easily exploitable and there was no protection,” said Joanna Howe, an expert on temporary labor migration at the University of Adelaide, of the working holiday visa. “It has lowered wages and conditions in the industry. Failure to comply became the norm, and as a result, locals left the industry. “
The abuses uncovered in a number of media reports over the past few years have set the tone range.
“We have seen cases of sexual abuse, physical violence and passports taken against people’s will,” said Dan Walton, secretary of the Australian Labor Union. “We have seen every form of shady work practice, from rip-offs of wages, withholdings of wages, to false deductions from people’s wages.”
Kiah Fowler, 23, a backpacker from Pennsylvania, came to Bundaberg, Queensland to pick strawberries in March 2020 after losing her job as a host elsewhere in Queensland.
“There are some wonderful farmers out there, but by chance I ended up in a region known for the exploitation of backpackers,” she said. “I was desperate for money and thought it couldn’t be as bad as people said it was. It was.”
The contractor she worked for paid her $ 19 an hour, or $ 14.75 – below the minimum wage of $ 24 – and only offered two to four hours of work a day, she said. The same contractor charged her $ 210 a week to stay in a cramped house with nine other backpackers.
She and the other backpackers, she said, were aware that they were being exploited, “but during Covid many of us said, ‘What choice do we have?'” Eventually she left the job.
Ben Rogers, general manager of labor relations and legal affairs for the National Farmers’ Federation, admitted that the industry’s reputation for underpaying and mistreating workers was not entirely undeserved.
But he added that the organization was doing everything it could through quality assurance programs and was calling for new recruitment policies.
Hopefully solving these issues could help get some Australians back into the industry. Farmers talk about changing the way the industry sees the industry starting in school and advancing technology that would make it less labor intensive.
The Australian Labor Union has filed a challenge with the Fair Work Commission to set a minimum wage for the industry. It believes that a lower wage limit would reduce the likelihood of underpayment and encourage a stronger local workforce.
But these possible solutions, as well as changes to immigration regulations, are years away if they ever occur. Farmers are currently struggling with national borders, which closed in March 2020 and are not expected to reopen until 2022.
The Shepparton area, a town two hours north of Melbourne where Mr. Hall wanted to harvest his apples, is one of the worst hit by labor shortages.
Typically, backpackers flock to Victoria Park Lake in the middle of town to take advantage of the free BBQ grills and set up tents and parking cars. However, this year it is calm and quiet.
Most of the hostels are also empty.
One Australian, Brett Jones, 38, said he would be returning to a construction job soon.
“When you build it, you end up feeling like you’ve achieved something instead of just filling a container with pears for someone,” he said.
He also admitted, “I’m not very good at picking fruit.”
“My thoughts wander on,” he said. “I keep thinking that there has to be an easier way to make money.”