Farming industry leaders in Australia have warned the cost and availability of fruit and vegetables could be hit hard by a lack of labour without the restart of the Working Holiday Maker (WHM) programme.
Up to 80 per cent of a farm’s seasonal workforce could be made up of backpackers pre-Covid-19, including from the UK, but numbers have plummeted since international borders closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
And the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) has warned even with measures introduced by Government designed to encourage Australians to take up farm jobs, the horticulture sector alone is forecast to have to have a worker deficit of up to 26,000 by March 2021.
In a joint letter to the Australian Government, NFF and the Backpacker and Youth Tourism Advisory Panel have called for a three-phased approach to safely resume the flow of backpackers.
NFF chief executive Tony Mahar said: “A recent report detailed that without access to WHMs, the fresh fruit and vegetable industry may suffer a AUS$6.3 billion reduction in value and the cost of fresh produce could increase by 60 per cent.
“It may also place pressure on the availability of some varieties of fruit and vegetables, as farms lack the staff needed to pick and pack this crop and plant the next one.
“While employing Australians will always take precedence, a safe restart of the WHM programme would assist to address agriculture labour shortages.”
He highlighted the latest job figures, which showed the number of people employed in agriculture had ‘declined significantly’.
Mr Mahar said: “With one of the strongest harvest seasons in recent memory, the only explanation is not that we are losing work, but that we are losing access to workers.”
The backpackers also played a major role in Australia’s tourist economy and were worth AUS$3.2bn (£1.7bn).