Supply of winter workers under COVID-19

There has been some disquiet in the horticulture sector that there may be a shortfall of seasonal workers over winter as many backpackers have returned to their home countries and Pacific workers are not able to enter Australia.

However, circumstances are changing quickly and it appears there are now plenty of people looking for this work.

Generally only about one quarter of working holidaymakers have qualified for a second year visa – overwhelmingly achieved by undertaking farm work.  The remainder have preferred hospitality work to pay for their Australian holiday.  Unfortunately for them, due to the economic shutdown to combat COVID-19, almost all those jobs have disappeared.  They do not have the welfare system to fall back to, so have to find some form of income while remaining here.  Casual jobs are suddenly few, but seasonal horticulture work remains available.  So we now have almost the entire remaining backpacker cohort looking for farm work.

Travel between Pacific island countries and Timor Leste has virtually ceased, so planned Seasonal Worker Programme winter workers cannot arrive.  However the workers in Australia now are at summer peak numbers and they are stranded here.  The Government has extended their visas and allowed temporary flexibility in the Programme so they can be transferred to farms where planned winter teams will be unavailable.  With lesser numbers required across the country over winter, that should fill the gaps where SWP workers have been arranged, and a few more besides.

Local workers have not sought out seasonal farm work in great numbers, but many who have suddenly lost jobs will take any option, especially migrant Australians.  The new generous welfare options will remove some of the financial imperative to find a quick job, but not all will qualify.

The network of Harvest Labour Service offices across Australia, the National Harvest Labour Information Service, and many employers are now noting large numbers of job enquiries from workers in all three categories – some in desperation!

Horticulture is considered an ‘essential industry’ under COVID-19 restrictions, so workers have access to exemptions on travel restrictions.  Employers will need to send them documentation that provides evidence they are travelling to a firm job – note that requirements differ between states.

Accommodation may be a difficult factor to overcome.  14 day quarantine periods are compulsory in many circumstances as well as the ability to socially isolate.  The usual backpacker hostel model simply cannot comply.  So anything that employers can do to assist with accommodation to get travelling workers through the arrival period will be beneficial.

To access workers making themselves available, employers need to contact the National Harvest Labour Information Service to register upcoming vacancies so those enquiring can be put in touch.  The service costs nothing to use and is funded by the Commonwealth to support industry to coordinate seasonal labour.

Call 1800 062 332 or email to register vacancies, or to discuss your upcoming labour needs and the options available to you.