Farmers lead call for backpacker restart

Farmers and tourism operators have urged the government to restart backpacker travel to Australia.
Farmers and tourism operators have urged the government to restart backpacker travel to Australia.

Farmers and tourism operators have urged the government to restart backpacker travel to Australia under a tiered coronavirus-safe plan.

National Farmers' Federation chief Tony Mahar and Backpacker and Youth Tourism Advisory Panel representative Wendi Aylward have written to the federal government with a proposal.

All backpackers would be tested for coronavirus before leaving their home country and still be required to quarantine for two weeks.

A trial period of selected sponsor agencies specialising in youth travel, with a focus on farm work and au pairs, would begin the three-stage plan.

The rules would then be relaxed and the program extended into more states as domestic border restrictions ease and more international travel bubbles are created.

The final stage would retain testing and quarantine requirements but backpackers would be allowed to travel independently with work arranged on arrival.

Both organisations want affordable quarantine for the backpackers.

Before the pandemic, backpackers could provide up to 80 per cent of a farm's seasonal workforce.

There are less than half the backpackers now in Australia than this time last year, with the numbers declining as people return home.

Mr Mahar warned the fruit and vegetable industry could suffer a $6.3 billion reduction in value, while fresh produce costs could soar 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," he said on Thursday.

"While employing Australians will always take precedence, a safe restart if the Working Holiday Maker program would assist to address agriculture labour shortages."

Tourism operators are struggling as summer holidays approach, while farmers desperately need labour ahead of the peak harvest season.

Agriculture department officials failed to nominate how many workers Australia needs to fill farm labour gaps at a Senate estimates hearing on Wednesday.

"It's just mind blowing that the department cannot provide this committee with figures in terms of the labour shortage," Labor senator Raff Ciccone told the hearing.

Professional services firm EY estimated the worker shortfall was 26,000 in a recent report commissioned by the horticulture industry.

Agriculture department boss Andrew Metcalf said the government had a strong feel for the overall numbers, but was unable to nominate a figure.

Committee chair and Nationals senator Susan McDonald defended the department's failure to provide data.

"It's very difficult for the department given that so many seasonal workers move between agriculture, hospitality and other sectors," she said.

Australian Associated Press