Harvests could be lost if travel restrictions lead to labour shortages on Australian farms | World news
Fruit and vegetable growers say global travel restrictions could create imminent labour shortages on Australian farms, amid growing concern harvests could be lost due to the spread of the coronavirus.
Growers’ groups say there are no current supply or demand issues for fresh produce. But farmers have raised alarm at a looming labour deficit in an industry highly reliant on seasonal, short-term and foreign workers.
“We’ve been having these conversations with government for a couple of weeks now … to ensure there’s a security of supply of labour,” said Richard Shannon, the policy and advocacy manager of the industry lobby group, Growcom.
“It is the one issue that growers are raising consistently. There are people overseas making decisions right now [about whether to come to Australia], who would otherwise be here picking fruit or vegetables in three and six months’ time.
“All options are being explored, including creating greater flexibility around those [temporary and foreign-work] visas for folks already in Australia, or incentives we might provide to attract more domestic workers.”
Horticulture is heavily reliant on backpackers and other foreign workers, partly because of the difficulty farmers have in attracting Australians for harvest work.
Shannon said it was too early to say what crops could be affected, or how significant the impact of labour shortages might be. Of more immediate concern to some growers was the impact of following isolation protocols should a farm worker return a positive test for the coronavirus.
“Best practice or advice to other industries is to send everyone home for two weeks, but that doesn’t work in horticulture where the crop will be dead in two weeks, and needs to come off today. There are implications ultimately for the security of the fresh food supply chain.”
Growcom chief executive David Thomson, in his regular message to growers last week, said other concerns included the availability of chemicals and packaging manufactured overseas.
“If we have an increasing proportion of the population unwell, the last thing we want is less fresh fruits and vegetables available,” Thomson said. “These foods are our first and best medicine.”
Tyson Cattle from Ausveg, a peak body for vegetable and potato growers, said farmers were working with the government to address labour shortages.
“As visa arrangements, particularly seasonal worker programs … and people on working holidays are coming to the end of their time, are we going to see a drop off in the workforce.
“It’s our biggest focus and we’re looking at a lot of options at the moment.”
While some supermarkets had temporary shortages of produce recently due to a large volume of shoppers, the industry says there are no current supply chain concerns about fresh produce.
Woolworths and Coles have both instituted dedicated shopping hours for the elderly and disabled, amid concern that panic-buying products like toilet paper and hand sanitiser could cause vulnerable people to miss out. Both major supermarkets have instituted limits on products in high demand, including mince, pasta and rice.
Shanaka Jayasinghe, the director of supply chain consultancy GRA, said Australian supermarkets were better placed than most other countries to plan for such a contingency, partly because of the large supermarket duopoly.
Jayasinghe said one of the biggest challenges for the supermarket supply chain would be the lingering impact of panic buying.
“When you’ve got very lumpy demand that is quite significant, you need to consider what that does to demand for the remainder of the year. If you see two years’ worth of toilet paper sold in a three-week period. How is that going to eat into your supply and demand into the future?
“From an agriculture point of view there’s a lot of regions that are dependent on that backpacker-type workforce. At the same time I’d say it would be a very understanding consumer right now, compared to a couple of months ago, in terms of the shape of a banana or pear.”