Backpackers to pick fruit, mind children under pilot proposal by farm and tourism groups

August 18th, 2020 | | backpacker

Backpackers prepared to pick fruit or work as au pairs could become the exception to Australia’s inbound travel ban under a pilot proposal by farm and tourism groups.

Key points:

  • Farm and tourism groups are preparing a proposal to put to government to allow backpackers into Australia
  • International travellers are banned from entering Australia because of COVID-19
  • Industries that rely on migrant workers fear a shortage as backpacker numbers fall to about 80,000

The National Farmers’ Federation and the Backpacker and Youth Tourism Advisory Panel (BYTAP) are framing a proposal that would initially allow 150 backpackers to travel to Australia, as soon as October.

The proposal, which is yet to go to government, would permit holidaymakers from countries with low COVID-19 infection rates to travel to Australia.

It is not clear how the cost of quarantining the backpackers on arrival would be covered. 

The pilot would be used to employ backpackers on farms or as au pairs, after the positions had initially been offered to local workers. 

The Federal Government recently approved a similar pilot in the Northern Territory, which allows workers from Vanuatu on the seasonal worker program to enter the country, despite Australia’s ban on international travellers

Under the NT program, farmers are expected to cover the cost of two weeks in quarantine at a rate of $2,500 per worker.

About 170 workers are expected to arrive in the NT by the end of the month.

Farm work
Backpackers are relied on for seasonal picking work in regional Australia.(ABC Rural: Charlie McKillop)

‘Highly controlled’

Australia’s farm sector is heavily reliant on migration labour.

However, growers have become increasingly concerned about how they will harvest spring and summer crops under the COVID-19 restrictions that have reduced backpacker travel.

At a recent parliamentary inquiry into the working-holidaymaker program, NFF spokesman Ben Rogers said the number of backpackers in Australia had fallen from 140,000 in March to about 80,000 in June. 

“We look at around 40,000 working in the sector per annum, so there would be enough provided they could move around the country and go to where that work is,” Mr Rogers told the inquiry. 

He said the NFF was working with the Backpacker Youth Tourism Advisory Panel to develop “a COVID-safe pathway proposal” that would allow backpackers into Australia in a “highly controlled manner”.

“The rollout would have to be cautious.

“But with appropriate safeguards it’s hard to imagine what rational objection their could be,” Mr Rogers said.

In its submission to the same inquiry, the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance referred to a report from EY Consultants that found there were 50,000-71,000 short-term roles in fresh produce throughout the year.

AFPA said backpackers contributed $13 billion to the national economy and filled 127,000 jobs across the fresh-food sector, including in retail and manufacturing. 

Backpackers in a citrus orchard.
Growers are concerned about how they will harvest spring and summer crops under the COVID-19 restrictions that have reduced backpacker travel.(Supplied: Milan Scheunemann)

Australia isn’t expected to open its borders to international travellers until next year, but in April the Government announced it would allow some foreigners already in Australia to extend their visas.

According to Home Affairs, 401 people on the working holidaymaker program and more than 3,550 on the seasonal worker program have been granted the extension.

Tourism-style campaign to lure workers

The working holidaymaker inquiry heard about different initiatives to attract workers to the horticulture industry, inlcuding a proposal by AFPA to pay Australians who were unemployed because of the pandemic $1,200 to relocate for work.

When asked about initiatives to incentivise workers Mr Rogers said the former Seasonal Worker Incentive Trial, which encouraged welfare recipients to work on farms, hadn’t initially been a huge success.

But he said “circumstances have changed fairly dramatically, and in a few months the program could be rolled out again and given another go”.

Committee member and Liberal MP John Alexander also raised several ideas, including a Tourism Australia-type campaign to attract workers.

“It seems to me that there is a way of packaging this to make it really exciting for a young Australian,” Mr Alexander said.

“Or equally, for anyone from any other part of the world to come here and be a part of doing some good, hard physical work with a whole bunch of other young people, but having a great social support package and even having proper destinations like R and R and party centres.”

Mr Alexander, the Federal Member for Bennelong, told the inquiry he would love to work on such a campaign.

The inquiry into working holidaymakers comes as Australia braces for record unemployment, and unions have called for a ban on backpacker labour which they claim is rife with exploitation.

Source: ABC

Sourced by Mike Barrow