Seasonal workers left stranded by COVID
Building a fair, ethical and sustainable food system is not just about ensuring that our farmers get paid a decent price for the food they grow. It’s also about looking after those who work hard to help harvest it. Every season, our fruit and vegetable growers depend on an army of workers who help to get the fresh produce we love from the paddock to the plate. Many of these workers are seasonal workers, who come from other countries.
While most of the attention on seasonal workers of late has been on the decided lack of them, there are also those who were working here when COVID-19 first hit, and who have been unable to get home to their families for all of these long months.
Hillwood Berries in Tasmania, which grows strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries, relies on a seasonal workforce for their harvest, which runs from November to May. This meant that, when borders closed and states locked down in March, many of their workers who hail from the Pacific Islands were left stranded, without employment to move on to or access to any government benefits.
“We’d employed them under the usual nine-month contract, and so a lot of them were coming up to the end of a contract at the end of April and would usually go home – their visas were due to expire as well,” says Hillwood Berries manager Simon Dornauf. “Then all of a sudden, the lockdowns occurred, and countries like Tonga were very quick to close their borders down, including that no citizens could come home. And by late April, May our season was coming to an end, so we didn’t have any more work for our workers.”
Fortunately, through the persistence and influence of farmers like Dornauf, the government made the decision to extend the workers’ visas, and eligible seasonal work was found for Hillwood’s Pacific Island workforce in South Australia.
“We relocated our workers to the mainland to pick citrus, and that was tough for them,” Dornauf says. “Sure, it was a good opportunity, and a lot of them were happy to keep earning money and sending it home.
“But it was also hard on them. They were gearing up to go home to their families and now they don’t know when they’re going home. And moving from picking berries, which is difficult but not heavy work, to picking citrus – it’s quite a physical job.”
While it’s certainly been a difficult time for the seasonal workers still unable to get home, the upside is that there is still plenty of work here, including at Hillwood Berries, where the picking season is about to begin again. By working together with the Tasmanian government, Dornauf and other farmers like him have managed to ensure that they are able to bring their workforce back into the state, and that the workers know they’re not forgotten.
“Our workers have been doing it tough on the mainland, so we’ve done a lot to reassure them that we’re looking after them,” Dornauf says. “We’ve made sure to stay in contact with them, and we’re very pleased that the Tasmanian government is allowing us to isolate them in our own accommodation and so they don’t have to pay for a hotel.
“There was a lot of angst among our workers, who were hearing rumours that they would all be charged $2800 for a hotel. That was scaring them.”
Dornauf is proud of his seasonal workers, many of whom return year after year to work the harvest at Hillwood Berries. The advantages of this arrangement flow both ways.
“We went into the Seasonal Worker Programme a number of years ago, because we saw the benefits,” he says. “Both the efficiencies from these guys, but also the benefits of them being able to go home to their families and provide for them.
“So I really want to see these guys get home at the end of our season, to get home to their families. I think they deserve that.”
Enjoy the fruits of our hard-working Aussie farmers’ and seasonal workers’ labour, and say thank you by buying Australian berries next time you’re at your local farmers’ market or supermarket. Berries are in season right now, including Aussie blueberries. For recipe ideas and nutritional info on this superfruit, head to australianblueberries.com.au