COVID-19 Impact on worker availability

The word on everybody’s lips at the moment is coronavirus, otherwise known as COVID-19. Every segment of the economy will be affected in some form, but for the horticulture industry a major concern is the supply of seasonal workers.

Situation rapidly changing

The term ‘uncharted waters’ is being widely used in relation to everything happening around us at the moment and circumstances, information and data is changing daily… even hourly. So how do we know what is going to happen next? The short answer is that we cannot be certain.

What we know now

The demand for most fruit and vegetables remains strong. As consumers recognise that fresh produce is good for their health, demand has increased somewhat as people want to ensure their family is physiologically prepared in case they are exposed to the COVID-19 virus.

An overwhelming proportion of fresh produce sold at Australian retail outlets is sourced domestically, so is not subject to the serious restrictions that have impacted on international trade.
At this stage the supply chain is secure. Seasonal workers have long been a weak link, but in recent times most seasonal labour needs have been met for growers who take reasonable steps to attract and retain their harvest workforce. However, due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 this is likely to change.
Most people who work on horticulture farms are Australian. The business owners themselves, their families and permanent staff are almost all Australian residents. However, the seasonal workers, particularly at harvest and other peaks, are dominated by non-Australians.

Seasonal workers are made up of:

  • Backpackers or Working Holidaymakers
  • Seasonal Worker Program workers
  • Australians residents, including migrant Australians
  • Illegal workers (sometimes referred to as undocumented workers)

It is the legal, non-Australian component that is creating the most concern at the moment.

Many Unknowns

The biggest unknown at this stage is how severe the pandemic will finally be, particularly in Australia, and how long the impacts will last, both health-wise and economically. We simply don’t know how long restrictions on international travel, gatherings and social distancing will last. And new travel limitations between Australian states adds yet another level of complexity that will make a necessarily mobile workforce more problematic.

We have been told to expect a timeline of around six months for the current situation, but it could be longer. And other restrictions, either forced upon us by policymakers or by the practicalities of the situation, may still be to come.
Bigger picture questions of when effective infection treatment will become available, and more importantly, when a safe vaccine can be developed and rolled out, are best left to the experts… and time. However, until these are in place we cannot expect normality to return, even when the expected ‘herd immunity’ reaches a critical mass.
Consequently, the impact on the seasonal workforce, particularly the non-Australian component, is still largely unknown. There is no doubt there will be an impact, but the severity and the timeline is very much up in the air.

Security of current Australian workforce

The impact on the current Australian workforce is likely to be the least of any of the worker groups in the horticulture sector. Apart from individuals in this group coming down with the virus, or having to self-isolate, these workers should continue to be available at the same level as previously. Any infection issues will be short-term and staggered over time, although a specific workplace with an infected worker is likely to have others around that same time. The impact of directly infected Australian workers on a single farm is likely to be measured in weeks rather than months.
Itinerant Aussie workers who make a living from travelling and working in peak harvest areas are a small proportion of the workplace in the modern age. It is unlikely this group will change their patterns much, if at all.
Grey nomads are highly regarded but make up only a miniscule proportion of the seasonal workforce. However, they often fill critical skilled or supervisor positions, as well as administrative support during production and employment peaks. Some of this group, or their partners, may extend into a higher risk category due to age. So whether they avoid contact for a while will be dependent on their health risk profile and personal finances and is an unknown quantity.
Aussie students from either universities or high school can feature heavily in some regions as a seasonal workforce, but as the critical summer holidays are over, this group is not going to be represented on farms during this period.
The unknown factor in the Australia working cohort is if there is a rapid rise in COVID-19 infections and large numbers of people become sick.

Changes to foreign workforce availability

A big component of the seasonal workforce in Australian horticulture comes from overseas, with Working Holiday Makers and the Seasonal Worker Program making up a major proportion. Many backpackers perform three months’ worth of horticulture work to qualify for a second year in Australia under their visas.
In times of stress people often seek the security of family, so it is logical that working holiday makers may want to return home during this uncertain time. However, with Australia being far less impacted by the virus than many of the countries that backpackers come from, it may well be that they feel safer here. Restrictions on travel and the now limited availability of commercial flights may mean that these people have to stay in Australia anyway. So at this point it is a totally unknown quantity whether the number of backpackers will remain stable.
One known detail now is that new backpackers cannot travel to Australia to take the place of any leaving, and won’t for at least six months. So while numbers will obviously reduce, it is not at all clear how many that will be…it may not be many.

Most working holidaymakers tend to drift away from farm work once they have achieved their 88 day to qualify for a second year visa. However backpackers will need to live somehow, and with little other work now available, chances are they will remain working on farms just to make a living. This is potentially one silver lining at the moment.
Due to the new travel bans, no new Seasonal Worker Program workers will be able to enter the country.  Pacific island culture is very family oriented so it will be no surprise if many existing workers are keen to return home. However, most commercial airline options to the Pacific have been removed from operation, so they appear to have little choice but to remain in Australia for longer.
A temporary relaxation of SWP visa conditions, along with WHMs, has been mooted and if introduced will see workers who come to the end of their original visa be allowed to stay longer. Temporary, more flexible guidelines for the SWP have also been flagged to allow movement of workers once their visas have been extended but no details have emerged yet. 
Now that is has become almost impossible for SWP visa workers to either enter or leave the country, it is likely the numbers overall will remain fairly static for a while, but difficulties will still exist with moving these workers to the locations where needed.
For those industries that have harvest commencing in winter such as citrus, vegetables and mangos in northern Australia, and who bring in SWP workers for this purpose, the situation will be particularly challenging. They do not have a current SWP workforce that can remain, and for now their planned incoming groups cannot travel to Australia. These industries will need to be proactive now to ensure enough feet are on the ground when harvest starts.

New group of Australians available for horticulture work

The tourism and hospitality industries have been hit hard immediately, and this is likely to get worse. Other related sectors such as retail are facing similar issues, even if not on the same scale. This has had an immediate effect on employment options, particularly casual work. Unemployment overall is predicted to increase significantly, with many full-time and permanent employees already retrenched or had hours cut.
This creates a new pool of experienced, reliable Australians, with a proven employment record, who may be available to fill horticulture positions. Growers may need to rethink stereotypes about the reliability and productivity of Australian workers if they want to maintain the workforce they need. This will be a new resource they can tap into.
The difficult factor accessing recently unemployed Australian workers is that they will be largely based in the city or regional centres, while most horticulture is not. It will be a big decision for someone to leave their home and family in the city to travel to the regions, source accommodation, and take up seasonal work, even in the short term. It will be up to individual farmers and the horticulture industry to make sure they make it as attractive as possible for this potential working cohort if it is required.

Help is at hand 

The National Harvest Labour Information Service (NHLIS) has the experience and resources to help employers tap into available workers when needed.
A simple phone call to 1800 062 332 between 8am and 8pm EDT Monday to Friday, is all it takes to list a vacancy on the Harvest Trail website.
Many potential workers looking for work access the NHLIS and the Harvest Trail website in search of possible employment opportunities.

Useful Links

Many industry bodies are sending out information on COVID-19, this one from the Australian Banana Growers’ Council is particularly good – comprehensive but concise.

This information was current as at 23 March 2020.