Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud and the Victorian Farmers Federation have urged the Victorian government to immediately tap into a supply of 22,000 pre-approved Pacific Island workers who could cover a critical seasonal worker shortage on farms.
Amid finger-pointing between the state and federal governments, federal Nationals MP Damian Drum, whose electorate covers the Goulburn Valley region, warned Victoria had “days, not weeks” to avoid fruit rotting on trees and the prospect of inflated produce prices or shortages over the summer.
In addition, she said the federal government could admit Pacific countries with little or no coronavirus into the Trans-Tasman bubble, meaning workers would not have to complete a 14-day quarantine in Australia.
“We have got to just be practical and make things happen. We are staring down the barrel of Victorian produce – stone fruit, cherries, grapes – rotting,” said Ms Germano, who started harvesting cauliflower on her Gippsland farm this week.
“In reality some damage has already been done but the need is not going away.”
Premier Daniel Andrews acknowledged after National Cabinet on Friday that Australia needed 15,000 to 20,000 seasonal workers as soon as possible primarily because the annual cohort of 140,000 backpackers, who make up about 80 per cent of the seasonal workforce, had left the country due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Recognising the shortfall, the federal government in August approved 22,000 employees in countries such as Vanuatu, Tonga, Samoa and Tuvalu via labour hire companies.
Quarantine arrangements are a state responsibility and Queensland, the Northern Territory, NSW and Tasmania have brought in about 1000 employees on charter flights who worked on a farm while completing their 14-day quarantine.
Victoria, however, is yet to implement a similar scheme and Mr Littleproud told The Age he was frustrated by the “glacial rate of progress in Victoria compared with other states”.
“We have had the Pacific Labour Scheme and Seasonal Worker Programme in place since August and other states have been able to successfully and safely bring workers in to work on farms, including one of our smallest jurisdictions, the Northern Territory,” he said.
“I am hopeful that Friday’s National Cabinet decision will be embraced urgently as a priority by the Victorian government”.
Premiers and Chief Ministers agreed in National Cabinet to present the Commonwealth with plans to bring in seasonal workers as soon as possible, particularly as federal and Victorian attempts to attract domestic Australians to agricultural work have had little success.
There has been little movement on a proposal by Victorian Agriculture Minister Jaclyn Symes last month for Pacific workers to quarantine in the Northern Territory before moving to Victoria, although she told The Age the option was still being actively investigated.
“We will continue to urgently progress plans to welcome Pacific Island workers to Victoria, and in light of the National Cabinet decision on Friday we will consider all options open to us,” she said.
Ms Symes said she would “continue to ask a seemingly disinterested Mr Littleproud” to urgently explore other levers his government could pull to bring in more workers.
Federal Nationals MP Damian Drum said he supported expanding the Trans-Tasman bubble to Pacific Island nations and admitted the pre-vetted Pacific Island workers were Victoria’s only real hope of salvaging this harvest season.
“All the arrangements and decisions have to take place in this next week, most certainly,” he said.
“This is an issue of days, it’s not weeks or months. We can’t afford a bureaucratic bungle with governments finger-pointing. Nobody should sleep if we end up with that.”
Ms Germano said she had already heard stories from Yarra Valley berry farmers who were throwing away produce and one farmer in the Sunraysia region who needed 120 workers in the next fortnight to avoid wasting thousands of dollars of table grapes.
“One bad fruit season can be enough for businesses to go under,” she said.