List of agricultural businesses affected by border closures grows

By Rodney Woods

A Girgarre dairy farmer wants to know where the unemployed Australians looking for work are, after a group of unions called for the scrapping of the Holiday Maker Program to prioritise unemployed Australians over backpackers.

The Australian Workers’ Union, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association and the Transport Workers’ Union said ending the program would stamp out widespread worker exploitation and provide more jobs for young people in regional Australia.

But Neil Maudsley has not been able to fill a position on his farm for two months and has had to rely on backpackers who remained in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are prepared to teach anyone the skills but we have got to have someone who will at least turn up,” he said.

“I think we’ve become a group of people that lack resilience.

“I've been farming for over 40 years and jobs that Australians would do, like general farm work and milking, are now being taken up by backpackers.

“We use a lot of automation now, so the work is easier than it once was.”

Mr Maudsley said there were plenty of jobs available but the local workforce was just not there.

“We need those unions to tell us the people who are looking for a job and we are happy to give them one,” he said.

“I could name half a dozen agricultural businesses who can't find people to apply for jobs.”

While he has the capacity to provide work year-round, Mr Maudsley still finds it difficult to recruit locals.

“The backpackers are wanting to be here for 88 days at a time, which is not ideal as we like to train them up.

“I'd like to put on a local for as many years as they like, but they are just not available.”

Integrity Fruit owner Peter Hall, from Ardmona, said the current situation in Victoria was a catastrophe.

“The only concern I have for this harvest season is getting pickers, and it's dependent on the government and the border closures,” Mr Hall said.

“I don’t think any backpackers would want to come to Victoria and it will be a challenge to get labour.”

Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has put the onus on state governments to address farm labour shortages with overseas workers ahead of a crucial harvest period.

Farmers will be able to fill jobs with Pacific Islander and East Timorese workers under two restarted visa schemes which can only be accessed if the jobs cannot be filled locally.

He called on governments to allow temporary workers to move between states to help with harvests based on different seasonal conditions.

Mr Littleproud said while unemployment was high, many farm jobs were thousands of kilometres away from Australians out of work.