Australian fruit growers on Monday urged state governments to set up travel bubbles with coronavirus-free Pacific island nations and bring in seasonal agricultural workers to avoid rotting crops and food price rises.
Citrus Australia, a lobby group, called on the country’s two most populous states to re-implement seasonal worker quotas.
“Both Victoria and New South Wales … have shown little urgency in resolving these problems,” said Citrus Australia chief executive Nathan Hancock.
“Safe, effective quarantine programs from the Pacific islands, which have almost no cases of Covid-19, can be implemented with political will.”
He said both states had blocked industry suggestions on easing restrictions on international arrivals and quarantine capacity.
“We call on Victorian premier Dan Andrews and NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian to show leadership and resolve the bureaucratic inertia stopping sensible, safe solutions to the seasonal worker crisis,” Mr Hancock said.
Backpackers pick tomatoes near Brisbane before the pandemic
He said half of the nation’s citrus crop was under threat. Much of it is grown in the Sunraysia region of north-west Victoria and the Riverina region of southern NSW.
The crops are usually picked by up to 140,000 backpackers — often foreign students on working holidays — and up to 12,000 seasonal workers from Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and other Pacific nations.
However, most backpacker and worker hostels were closed during the pandemic and have yet to reopen to full capacity.
Mr Hancock said there were about 50,000 backpackers currently in Australia but 1,000 were leaving the country each week.
“Their absence is being felt now, with growers unable to harvest their crops, resulting in price rises for fresh fruit and vegetables across Australia,” he added.
Attempts to recruit local workers have been unsuccessful, Mr Hancock said, with only 250 Australians signing up.