The Picky Packers Hostel in North Burnett, Queensland, would normally have hundreds of backpackers wanting to stay for the citrus harvest, but this year it’s almost completely empty.
- Growers and produce shops are warning fruit and vegetable prices will rise due to supply issues
- Growers haven’t been able to secure enough pickers to harvest their crops
MP Ken O’Dowd says backpacker hostels could be transformed into quarantine facilities for pickers
Owner Mark Postle said it was a worrying situation with the citrus industry worth more than $100 million to the region’s economy each year.
“This time last year we had a couple of hundred people on Facebook wanting to come for the citrus season, and this year we haven’t got any,” he said.
North Burnett is the biggest producer of mandarins in Australia, and requires about 2,000 workers during the peak of the harvest in Gayndah and Mundubbera.
Ann Bayntun, from Blue Cow Citrus, said picking of imperial mandarins will start in two weeks.
She said even though the business had hired local residents, its workforce would not be able to get the full crop off.
“The crop here usually comes on a little bit earlier … and we’re going to struggle to fill all the positions,” she said.
Prices to rise on supermarket shelves
Mrs Bayntun warned prices for produce would rise due to reduced supply to the supermarkets.
The Department of Agriculture has forecast fruit prices may increase up to 30 per cent due to the labour shortage.
April Elazzi, from Bundaberg’s Start Fresh Fruit Market, said there had already been “a little bit of a price rise” in recent weeks.
“The prices will rise accordingly to what the farmers can pick, and what seasonal fruits are out at that time,” she said.
Some growers with the ability to have on-farm quarantine accommodation are organising flights for seasonal workers from the Pacific Islands.
Mrs Bayntun said they applied six months ago for workers and were still waiting for approval.
“I can’t see us getting any this year, we don’t have the accommodation on farm to be able to support that,” she said.
Calls to fast-track Pacific workers
Federal Member for Flynn Ken O’Dowd agreed the process to access seasonal workers was complicated and drawn out.
“We’ve got to try and pick up the pace, but when you’re working with other countries and also state governments everyone’s got to fall into line as quickly as possible,” Mr O’Dowd said.
He said the federal government announced a trial to allow seasonal workers to quarantine in their home countries before travelling into Australia, but other opportunities including transforming backpacker hostels into quarantine facilities could be explored.
“That’s about 60 beds there and the owner has guaranteed to me that he would have the security and the safety aspects of COVID adhered to.
“The whole process needs to be expedited.”