SEASON PEAK: Seasonal workers looking for jobs on orchards are being turned away due to a small season. Picture: Contributed
SEASON PEAK: Seasonal workers looking for jobs on orchards are being turned away due to a small season. Picture: Contributed

‘Desperate’ backpackers knocked back from farm work

CORONAVIRUS restrictions and a small crop have forced backpackers to leave the region in droves.

Citrus orchards have reported a combination of virus restrictions and a minor season has caused them to knock back seasonal workers by the dozens.

Crossroads Citrus owner Emma Robinson believes the season has reached its absolute peak, and has denied pickers jobs for weeks due to the current situation.

"I've had to tell backpackers there's no work, and to be honest if they hadn't found any work by April, they were never going to be hired," Ms Robinson said.

"The season has already reached its pinnacle, and it's all downhill from here."

The closure of the hospitality industry meant backpackers had come to the region in large groups, hoping to bunker down, and wait out the pandemic.

Ms Robinson believes this has caused no labouring turnover, which would normally occur throughout the citrus season.

"People have been here for three months already, and they've been staying here because of the virus," she said.

"And the situation for work in March was terrible, as the season hadn't started yet.

"So once we hired 50 pickers, we didn't have to hire anymore since they couldn't travel back home, or across Australia like they usually would."

 

Dutch pickers Pieter Van Zaanen and Suzanne Zwaay in Gayndah for the mandarin season. Picture: Brandon Livesay
Dutch pickers Pieter Van Zaanen and Suzanne Zwaay in Gayndah for the mandarin season. Picture: Brandon Livesay

Ms Robinson has had her pickers since December, hiring past workers she worked with in 2019.

She said due to the unknown of coronavirus, orchards across the region weren't looking to hire new labourers, in fear of spreading infection.

"You're potentially opening yourself up to shutting the farm down, and paying work cover," Ms Robinson said.

"That would cost you a fortune if you had to stop picking."

Reports indicated several farms were only seeing 40 per cent of their usual crop, meaning fewer workers were necessary.

"A lot of the pickers trying to find work have been understanding, but there's nothing we can do about it," she said.

"This has probably been the largest amount of people looking for work to not get it.

"They've been very desperate, and found nothing."

Many backpackers are now digging in their roots, buying chickens, and growing vegetables to prepare for the coming months.

"They don't have any intention of going anywhere anytime soon," Ms Robinson said.

 

Lou Allan releases a load of Gayndah's world class citrus. Picture: Shirley Way
Lou Allan releases a load of Gayndah's world class citrus. Picture: Shirley Way

Inquiries made by Gayndah and District Fruit Growers Association secretary Judy Shepherd found there are allegedly ten times the amount of pickers looking for work this year.

She believes even the pickers who have found jobs may not be able to work consistently for the next few months due to the low crop.

"Some will have to travel somewhere else, but you'll find a lot of them may not leave at all," Mrs Shepherd said.

"We can try to keep them in employment, but when there's no work here, it's going to become quite hard."

The handling of the coronavirus situation by the region may come with some reputational damages to the industry.

"You can't tell people not to come, and when they've been arriving they have found there's no work here at all," she said.

"No one is leaving either, so it's an unusual anomaly."

Mrs Shepherd is now wondering what next year's season may look like, when the travelling workers return to their home countries.

"A lot of these workers won't return to Australia after what's happened this year, and there could be an issue for 2021's workforce," Mrs Shepherd said.

"Instead of coming over and having a tourist trip here, they may very well look for other destinations for a working holiday."


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