The pandemic has exposed the unstable foundation of Australia’s agriculture industry, a $54 billion-a-year goliath that has long been underpinned by the work of young, transient foreigners.
Border closures and other measures to keep the coronavirus out of the country have left Australia with a deficit of 26,000 farmworkers, according to the nation’s top agriculture association. As a result, tens of millions of dollars in crops have gone to waste from coast to coast.
“We’ve never faced a worker shortage like this in my 40 years,” said Peter Hall, who owns an orchard in southeastern Australia. “I suspect for each lot of crop, we’ll just not get there in time.”
This enormous crop destruction has fueled rising calls for Australia to rethink how it secures farm labor, with many pushing for an immigration overhaul that would give agricultural workers a pathway to permanent residency.
Since 2005, the government has steered young travelers to farms by offering extensions of working holiday visas from one year to two for those who have completed three months of work in agriculture. Backpackers can earn extensions by working in other industries like construction or mining, but 90 percent do so through farm work.
In a normal year, more than 200,000 backpackers would come to Australia, making up 80 percent of the country’s harvest work force, according to industry groups.
Now, there are just 45,000 in the country, according to government data, and attempts to fill the labor shortage with unemployed Australians have been largely unsuccessful.
The federal government has flown in workers from nearby Pacific islands, which have largely avoided the pandemic. But with border restrictions in place, the arrangements have sometimes been convoluted.
Nationwide, only about 2,400 workers have been flown into the country since the borders were shut, according to the National Farmers’ Federation.