Queensland’s top health official says she is concerned the state’s latest confirmed coronavirus case knew he may have been in contact with an infected person before travelling from interstate to pick strawberries.
The man may have known he spent time with a confirmed case in Melbourne
Queensland’s Chief Health Officer says he shouldn’t have travelled if he was aware of the infection
Tourism operators don’t expect the case will deter people visiting the region
The Department of Health confirmed a 24-year-old Victorian man tested positive to COVID-19 after travelling to Bundaberg from Melbourne via Brisbane.
The man had stayed with friends in Brisbane and was living and working with other strawberry pickers at SSS Strawberries prior to his diagnosis, prompting a broad public health alert.
Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young said it was still not certain whether the man was aware he had been in contact with another confirmed case in Victoria.
“I am a bit concerned that he knew he was possibly in contact with a known case in Melbourne — we are still not sure,” Dr Young said.
“If he did know, he really should not have come to Queensland.”
Queensland Health said 174 tests of close contacts from the weekend had returned negative results.
Direct travel priority for backpackers
The man entered Queensland under exemptions for essential workers, but Dr Young said the restrictions were working and the farm’s owners had done everything right.
“We are looking at the exemption process, because seasonal workers should travel direct from one place to another. They’re not supposed to stop,” she said.
“We know the incubation period is 14 days, and if you tested people on entry to Queensland you would know at that point they are negative, but they could cause a lot of transmission.
“It’s the 24 hours before you get symptoms that you are most contagious, and that might be why we are not seeing large numbers of cases from this particular gentleman who came to Bundaberg because he was in Melbourne at that time.”
Tourism industry forging ahead
Bundaberg Tourism chief executive Katherine Reid said operators were moving ahead with reopening and did not expect the case to have a significant impact on the number of tourists visiting the region.
“We’re confident that health workers got onto it quickly, there’s contact tracing happening and there have been no further cases,” she said.
“We’re moving forward with our messaging that the Bundaberg tourism and hospitality industry are good to go with COVID-safe practices in place and they’re ready to welcome people back.”
Australia’s largest grower-owned blueberry cooperative has upped its determination to employ local workers, using labour-hire firms and moving away from using backpackers as COVID-19 forces the sector to rethink safety.
Changing work conditions due to social distancing is likely to push up the price of blueberries
Finding pickers made more difficult by COVID-19 guidelines surrounding backpackers
Increased push for local workers at the country’s largest blueberry co-op
The move was prompted by the industry’s representative body, the Australian Blueberry Growers Association (ABGA).
Government guidelines require visa holders leaving a metropolitan area to have filled out a disclosure form.
“We back that up with very clear recommendations to our members that they have worker disclosure forms and run through a daily checklist,” ABGA Chief Executive, Rachel Mackenzie, said.
“They need to know who their workers are, where they are staying and who they are interacting with.
“We are also really advocating to our growers put their job advertisements on the National Harvest Labour Information Service rather than just have workers turning up.”
Moving from backpackers to local hire
The workforce at the plant increases at harvest time to process the fruit.
For the first time OzGroup, in concert with a labour-hire firm, has implemented a strategy to source as many local employees as possible and operate shifts differently.
CEO Adam Bianchi believed it would go a long way to mitigate potential COVID-19 problems, although he conceded it would result in added costs.
“This year we are looking at doing a bit more in terms of segregating to a day and a night shift, so we will have four separate crews,” Mr Bianchi said.
“We think it’s a necessary cost.”
OzGroup hoped a greater emphasis on local employees would develop their skills, which could then be utilised over the years instead of having to spend time training backpackers.
Harvest puts pressure on supply of workers
Many of the farms are family owned and reliant on backpackers to complement the handful of fulltime workers.
At Corindi, north of Coffs Harbour, Harvey Singh‘s picking is starting later than last year which he puts down to drought.
With 22,000 blueberry plants to be harvested, the job of finding pickers was made harder because travellers had to isolate for 14 days after coming into the area.
Harvey Singh said he asked all his workers where they have come from.
“Most of them have been saying they have been in the region for a couple of weeks now,” he said.
Fellow grower, Aman Lehl, at Corindi Beach, said he “fully supports” the COVID-19 regulations as a “public safety health initiative” which led to changes.
Raspberries are nearing the end of harvest but are not as hardy as blueberries and much of the packing is done in the paddocks.
“We have already had to make changes with social distancing with our packing stations … but so far it has been manageable,” Mr Lehl said.
Despite the effort to employ locals he is doubtful that many locals will sign up.
“They have been with us for years.”
While growers, processors and industry work to ensure COVID-19 guidelines are adhered to, the ABGA has also tried to reassure the community that all possible steps have been taken.
The ABGA admitted the challenge also is to try and ensure workers behave when not on-farm, so they are meeting councils to talk about accommodation and clear messages for backpackers.
A former farm and mining worker hopes his new app will help ease labour shortages in Victoria’s north-west.
Big demand in agriculture sector for foreign workers during picking season
Mobile app links backpacker workers to farms
Using technology to fill labour hire gaps
Robinvale local David Fevaleaki designed the app Backpicker to link farms with seasonal workers during busy harvest time and already thousands have signed up.
He said he got the idea for the mobile program from his time working on farms and in the mining game, where the legal status of itinerant workers could pose a problem for employers.
“During the registration, the workers have to input information so that the business owner understands their visa status,” Mr Fevaleaki said.
“We will actually show the live available positions that pop up — there’s two positions in Mildura, for example — and as positions get filled, then they will disappear off the map.”
‘You know what you’re getting’
The app is opened to all farmers in Australia, but is currently focused on the agricultural region of Victoria.
Peter Muraca, a third-generation table grape grower from Robinvale, downloaded the app and said it was invaluable for employers who wanted to learn a little bit about the workers they were likely to employ.
“You just know everything about them before you start,” Mr Muraca said.
“You know how long they intend to stay, rather than having to train them up only to have them move on, because they haven’t told you, and then you have to retrain again.
“With the app, they’ll tell you they intend to stay for three months, so you know you’re getting them for three months.”
Mr Muraca said there was no other app on the market that he could use to locate labour.
“I think it’s a good idea,” he said.
“Anything that gives you more options or a bigger pool can’t be bad; it’s got to be good.”
‘It will make life so much easier’
Berlin-based backpacker Leon Rief first came to Australia in 2018, and said he believed the app would have made finding work much easier.
“Finding a job was not easy without any contacts or experiences in a foreign country,” he said.
“I used services like Seek, Craigslist and Gumtree, but that did not work out well for me because we got scammed a lot.
“On platforms like that there is little to no security for both parties, so I experienced a lot of problems as a worker and heard a lot of stories from employers who had problems with finding the right workers for their job.
“With Backpicker, both parties have the opportunity to have some security and with the profile a worker has the opportunity to show their experience.”
Mr Rief said he thought the simplicity of the app would greatly assist both foreign workers and landowners who were not necessarily tech savvy.
“I was amazed how good everything worked out when I first dug into it,” he said.
“It will make the life of both employers and workers so much easier.”
As COVID-19 border restrictions start to ease across the country, Backpicker co-founder Mr Fevaleaki said he hoped the app would help make life a little easier for those who have been out of work
“It’s just another tool … for travelling workers to help connect with farm businesses,” he said.
Grey nomads cannot do all the heavy lifting when it comes to rebuilding fences in bushfire-affected country; it is young backpackers who are needed to bolster the workforce.
BlazeAid is calling for the Federal Government to offer backpackers incentive payments if they join the volunteers rebuilding infrastructure
Grey nomads make up the bulk of BlazeAid’s workforce rebuilding fences that were destroyed by bushfires in NSW, Victoria and South Australia
It has up to 1,000 volunteers working across 33 camps but says it needs at least 2,500 people on the ground
That’s the call from Tumbarumba BlazeAid camp coordinators Garry Wilson and Rob Golgini, who are desperate for more people to join their camp in the NSW Riverina Highlands.
“We have been flat out, we have already reached over 100 properties that have been damaged by fire,” Mr Wilson said.
“We would have replaced over 1,000 kilometres of fencing already, but there is so much more to do.”
BlazeAid is a volunteer-based organisation that works with communities in rural Australia after natural disasters to rebuild fences and other structures that have been damaged or destroyed.
There are between 700 and 1,000 volunteers working across 33 camps in NSW, Victoria and South Australia that were impacted by bushfire, but the organisation would ideally have 2,500 people on the ground each day.
Winter is coming
Mr Wilson said he was concerned that once the cold weather hits the NSW High Country, Tumbarumba’s BlazeAid workforce would be diminished.
“Winter is coming and all of our volunteers are caravanners, and as soon as it gets cold they are going to head north,” he said.
In a bid to get more people on the team, they have been advertising on noticeboards and shop windows in highlands towns and larger centres such Wagga Wagga.
“Truly, we could have 200 fit people for 12 months and we probably won’t get through what we have got to do,” Mr Wilson said.
“The thing is, farmers need fences now — not in six months’ time.”
‘Backpackers need to be paid’
Mr Wilson said while grey nomads made up the bulk of the BlazeAid workforce, he believed backpackers were needed to get the huge recovery task completed across the fire-affected states.
Earlier this month the Federal Government announced temporary changes to working holiday visas to allow backpackers to stay in Australia longer and help rebuild fire-ravaged communities.
Under the changes, regional employers are able to hire backpackers for a year — up from six months.
Volunteer work helping rebuild fire-ravaged properties and businesses will also be counted in the visa scheme, in which they must complete 88 days of work in regional Australia.
“The Government has done a really good job in extending the visas for backpackers,” Mr Wilson said.
“But backpackers need money; they come to Australia to do some work and get enough money to move to the next place and just keep moving around Australia.
“To extend their visa means they are going to need some money to live.”
He called for the Commonwealth to offer a paid incentive for backpackers, similar to Newstart allowance.
“The State Government has introduced a payment for NSW Rural Fire Service volunteers, so I think we need an initiative like that,” he said.
“It’s not rocket science; politicians have just got to pick up the phone and talk to each other, just get it done, don’t put it off.
“We have the fencing material, but we can’t deliver it because we simply don’t have the labour.”
Mr Golgini agreed that a change in tack was needed.
“What we are doing now due to the size [of the disaster] is not working,” he said.
“We need young people on board, as we are working in some hard mountainous country and it’s going to get cold very soon and we need to get this done.”
He said the Tumbarumba camp had a fantastic team of about 20 volunteers but more were urgently needed.
“We will feed and water people three times a day. It is a great camp.”
Paid incentive for Australian job seekers
The ABC asked Employment Minister Michaelia Cash if the Commonwealth could provide financial support to backpackers working with volunteer organisations like BlazeAid to increase its labour force.
In a statement, Senator Cash said the Government had provided recovery grants of up to $50,000 to fire-affected businesses and loans of up to $500,000 as stimulus to keep and encourage jobs growth in devastated areas.
She added that the Commonwealth was working closely with the states to ensure the funds were dispersed as quickly as possible.
“The recovery will be driven locally by local workers and communities, but this will be a massive recovery effort and we want businesses and charitable organisations to have as many boots on the ground as they need,” the statement said.
“The Federal Government already has incentives in place to encourage job seekers to move to areas with labour shortages, with up to $9,000 available to Australian jobseekers willing to move for work.
“Working holiday makers/backpackers inject around $3 billion into the economy each year, most of which is spent in regional areas. On average, they spend over $10,000 per visit.
“They spend every dollar they earn while in Australia, and in addition to the savings they bring here, they create more jobs for Australians in our tourism and hospitality industry.”
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and David Littleproud, the Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management, both declined to comment.
ED: Should the government encourage paid work for backpackers to help BlazeAid? Comments most welcome.
Please Share widely esp to friends and family in England, America, France, Italy and New Zealand.
There are now many groups ( eg Denmark and UK firefighters) mobilising to come out and help us rebuild after the Great Australian Jan 2020 Megafires. esp to Kangaroo Island, South Australia which is devastated! Sealink ferry fares have now been reduced to just $15 standing (with your swag) Currently, Working on cars and vans special price return with SA State Govt and Sealink now.
My suggestion before you leave is to google ‘BlazeAid base camps’ to get the map of Australia to see the locations. Press the base camp of choice you would like to go to and call the Coordinator giving an estimated time of arrival.
I also recommend that if you are a recognised and highly respected group (EG. UK firefighters) that you request an email signed by me (on BlazeAid letter head ) addressed to your airline for airfare consideration.
Groups coming must find their own way independently to a base camp and sharing your travel needs via Facebook works well. Finally, I would consider buying a swag in a town as close to the BlazeAid base camp as possible for your accomodation- we have ovals of room for you and the weather here is beautiful ( smoke cleared by welcome rains yesterday).
The Scott Morrison Federal Govt should have made a decision very soon Re: inclusion of volunteering at registered NFPs like BlazeAid to contribute to your 88 days for a second year Visa
Many thanks Kevin Butler BlazeAid Pres email@example.com
ED: since this post, the Federal government have allowed the 88 days volunteering to contribute towards the second year visa – great intiative.
Sourced by Mike Barrow
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