Research cited by the National Farmers Federation suggests a lack of access to backpackers on working holidaymaker visas could deal a $6.3 billion hit to the fresh fruit and vegetable industry across the country and drive up the cost of some fresh produce by as much as 60 per cent.
Fruit and vegetables that need to be hand-picked in Victoria over the coming weeks include melons, plums, grapes, tomatoes and cucumbers.
The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences predicts the price of summer vegetables, stone fruit, apples, pears and table grapes will rise 15-25 per cent this year because of the labour shortages.
The Agriculture Minister said he understood the state government’s hesitancy to make arrangements that could risk COVID-19 being reintroduced into the community, but he argued it was the time to take decisive action to ensure farmers would not suffer and labour shortages would not cause inflated grocery prices.
Asked on Tuesday what his message would be to Mr Andrews, Mr Littleproud told ABC’s Radio National: “Do something, please … We have farmers right across the country that are at a time-critical juncture.
“We continue to press them and say we are ready to stamp the visas. At national cabinet the states said they wanted this, and they acknowledged the importance and urgency of this, but we still haven’t seen them come up with any large-scale quarantine arrangements.
“Dan Andrews himself in national cabinet was quite clear in being the one that supported the continuation of states owning the quarantine arrangements and understanding and articulating the urgency of this.
“We’re just saying to Dan and his government, it’s important that action takes place now. There are 20,000 workers that are ready to come into the country, so we need you to step up, as you said you would.”
Acting Premier Jacinta Allan said the Victorian government was working hard on plans to bring Pacific Island workers to the state, but the arrangements were complicated and required more work.
“I appreciate there continues to be a level of frustration about the pace of this, but these things do need to be worked through carefully so that it doesn’t matter which part of Victoria we’re in, all parts of the state remain COVID-safe and COVID-free,” she said.
Ms Allan said the government was considering if it could bring in horticultural workers from other jurisdictions and said Victorian growers were seeking a mix of overseas and local workers.
Victorian Farmers Federation president Emma Germano said the Andrews government had predicted workers would start arriving by December 1, but farmers had been left frustrated by the inaction of the state and federal governments.
She said both governments had levers they could pull to solve the problem. The federal government, she said, could allow Pacific Island workers to enter the country without quarantining if the nations joined the trans-Tasman bubble. The state government could permit workers to quarantine on-farm.
She said the Morrison government was not keen to create the perception it was fast-tracking foreign workers’ entry to Australia, as many citizens faced lengthy delays to repatriate. The Victorian government was being cautious to avoid a situation where a government policy contributed to COVID-19 seeping back into the community, she said.
“So everyone is being cute. Both have the capacity to fix the problem but neither are doing it, and it’s now just this war between fed and state,” Ms Germano said.
“Everyone is passing on the buck and no one wants to be holding the baby.”
Catherine Velisha, managing director of Velisha Farms, said her business had scaled down production of zucchinis by about 20 per cent in expectation of the scarcity of workers.
With a farm in Werribee South, less than 40 kilometres from Melbourne CBD, Velisha Farms has found it easier than more remote sites to hire workers. It harvests produce all year, meaning it does not need to ramp up hiring of seasonal employees as dramatically as, for example, the grape farms of Mildura.
Ms Velisha said the repercussions of the labour shortage had yet to be felt and the emotional and financial burden on farmers would be dire.
“Victoria doesn’t want a third [COVID-19] wave; no one does and we are so lucky to be in this position, so I can understand why, as a leader, you would want to protect that,” she said.
“But we need some flexibility because the status quo isn’t good enough. Trying to get people into picking who aren’t currently interested – that’s a long-term plan, but it won’t fix the next two months … There is not enough being done to bring workers in quickly.”
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Paul is a Victorian political reporter for The Age.
Ashleigh McMillan is a breaking news reporter at The Age. Got a story? Email me at email@example.com