Half price NSW quarantine a good start
Industry has welcomed the news that the NSW government has agreed to subsidise half the quarantine costs for overseas agricultural workers, with labour shortages in the agricultural sector remaining at critical levels. All seasonal workers approved to quarantine in NSW during the 2020/21 financial year will now be eligible for a 50 percent subsidy of the cost of mandatory quarantine, provided the majority of their work is undertaken in NSW. This will reduce the cost to industry from $3000 per person to $1500 per person.
Primary producers rely on seasonal and foreign workers. However, the cost of mandatory quarantine is a significant barrier for farming businesses wanting to employ overseas workers. Following this announcement, it’s expected there will be an increase in applications through the Pacific Labour Scheme and Seasonal Worker Program as quarantining workers becomes more viable for farmers.
Thousands of workers needed
Chair of Berries Australia Peter McPherson says the announcement is welcome ahead of the significant labour needs of the upcoming berry season in northern NSW.
“Our calculations indicate that we will need around 16,000 workers for the NSW berry industry alone between July 2021 and February 2022,” he says. “With the exodus of backpackers, we are reliant on locals and workers from the Pacific.
“Subsidising quarantine costs represents a good balance between ensuring the safety of the Australian community while ensuring our agricultural sector can access workers at an economically viable rate and continue to harvest their produce.”
While McPherson says it’s “disappointing” the subsidy is only in place for this financial year. It will end before the berry season hits full swing. However, it’s hoped that travel bubbles may be negotiated by then, ending the need for quarantine.
Citrus Australia has also commended the NSW government’s decision. Citrus Australia CEO Nathan Hancock says that the original cost made the scheme unfeasible for the citrus industry, which could not have absorbed the cost.
“NSW government investment in the quarantine program will help meet our demands for the upcoming harvest,” he says. “It will also increase the returns that make such an important economic contribution to towns like Leeton, Griffith and Narrandera.”
What about Queensland?
The Australian Banana Growers’ Council (ABGC) is urging the Queensland government to immediately adopt a similar strategy. The state’s banana industry – and agriculture more broadly – is still in desperate need of more labour.
Stephen Lowe, ABGC chair, says agriculture cannot continue to be a much-touted pillar of the COVID recovery effort without additional support to access workers.
“A subsidy like the one introduced in NSW would make hotel quarantine a more realistic option for growers,” he says. “They are already struggling with natural disaster, poor prices and simply not having enough workers to harvest their crops.”
“We need action now”
However, the ABGC also echoes the thoughts of other peak industry bodies. It says that this labour shortage crisis will last far longer than the end of this financial year.
“Ongoing, practical solutions are needed,” Lowe says. “This will ensure we can continue to put fresh, Australian-grown produce on tables around the country.
“Worker shortages have been impacting farming businesses for some time now. The consequences for many growers have been financially and emotionally devastating. The ramifications are only going to get worse with time. We need action now.”