Farm labour and border restrictions

Workers picking strawberries on a Queensland farm. Image: ABC Rural

MORE evidence emerged yesterday of the disconnect of many of our leaders from matters rural and – in particular – matters food.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced that with tighter Covid restricions, seasonal horticultural workers on visas would not be permitted entry to NSW from Victoria. Her comment that out of work hospitality and airline employees could do the work instead reveals deep flaws in understanding the Australian food system and a notable lack of regard for the fresh food supply.

There is an assumption that food is always reliably there, exactly what you need, when and where you need it. With Covid-19, food’s reliable appearance on supermarket shelves is increasingly being recognised and celebrated. Truck drivers, warehouse and retail workers are all being acknowledged for the first time as critical players supporting our social fabric.

But the parts of the food chain that remain out of sight, further up and closer to the farm, are frequently overlooked or not understood.

While export-oriented agriculture garners attention, interest and kudos from policymakers, horticulture is a largely domestically-focused industry and frequently seems to exist in politicians’ blind spots.

In 2016, and with no consultation with the horticultural industry, the federal government introduced a 15 per cent tax on backpacker income. Backpackers are a vital workforce picking fresh food for Australians’ tables and the action put significant pressure on growers to continue attracting necessary workers, risking the fresh food supply in the process.

The tax grab was regarded as discriminatory as local workers had a tax-free threshold before tax was required to be paid whereas foreign backpackers picking alongside were taxed from the first dollar earned. This has since been legally challenged.

As I have argued before, we cannot afford to make assumptions around food. Politicians frequently reflect a modern misunderstanding that food can always come from ‘somewhere”. But food requires land; reliable water; growing inputs; washing, refrigeration and transport infrastructure; on- and off-farm seasonal labour to plant, pick, prune, sort, ship and pack. Many of these elements are in short supply globally. Workers require experience and understanding, a preparedness to work long hours and few of them could easily be swapped out for a Sydney barista or a crew of out of work Qantas flight attendants.

In dealing with this global medical emergency, there is significant pressure on our leaders to come up with the right answers. The Covid crisis is a highly complex and evolving situation. However there is nothing more fundamental to Australia’s long-term health and wellbeing than securing reliable, healthy, fresh food for the population.

Adding pressure to the horticulturalists who bring us our vital fresh food supply by shutting off a critical workforce will do nothing for our nation’s long-term health.

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