The fresh produce industry has applauded the Federal Government's decision to temporarily extend visas for vital foreign workers in agriculture and food processing.
The government announced this morning that temporary changes would be made to visa arrangements to help farmers access the workforce they need to secure Australia's food supply during Covid-19.
The changes allow those within the Pacific Labour Scheme, the Seasonal Worker Program and working holiday makers to continue to work in these sectors until the coronavirus crisis has passed.
Temporary visa changes announced today include an exemption from the six-month work limitation with one employer for working holiday makers working in agriculture as well as a further extension of their visa if it is due to expire in the next six months.
"We can't afford to see fruit rotting on trees and vines and vegetables left unpicked. It is vital our farmers maximise their hard work and economic returns," said Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack.
"We are acting to enable seasonal workers to extend their stay and remain lawfully in Australia until they are able to return to their home countries.
"The agriculture sector relies on an ongoing workforce and we are committed to providing the means for that to continue while ensuring strict health and safety measures are adhered to, including visa holders following self-isolation requirements when they move between regions."
AUSVEG CEO James Whiteside, whose organisation represents Australia's vegetable and potato growers, says the announcement is a sensible and practical solution for fruit and vegetable growers who rely on a combination of local workers and foreign backpackers.
"The decision to temporarily extend the visas of seasonal workers and backpackers already working on farms in Australia will give growers confidence to plant their crops for the coming season, will help keep local businesses open in regional and rural areas that rely on agriculture to survive, and will ensure that locals, seasonal workers and backpackers alike are able to keep their jobs, work and live safely, and keep the economy running," says Whiteside.
"This is an important outcome for the Australian horticulture industry and demonstrates the value in the sector coming together and collectively advocating on behalf of fruit and vegetable growers towards an outcome that benefits growers, workers and the Australian public.
"Fruit and vegetables help Australians have a healthy, strong immune system and fresh produce is essential to a healthy, well-balanced diet Australians need fresh produce and growers need workers to supply this produce to consumers."
The sentiment was similar at the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance (AFPA), highlighting the sector employs around 80,000 people including significant numbers of Australians, seasonal workers from the Pacific and Timor-Leste, and backpackers from around the world.
"The reality is a number of these workers, particularly those from the Pacific and Timor-Leste are unable to return to their home countries due to travel restrictions," says AFPA CEO Michael Rogers.
"The alternative to the extension of their visa arrangements was leaving these people unemployed in regional communities with minimal access to healthcare.
"Enabling their ongoing employment is a great outcome for workers, farmers and their communities."
The National Farmers Federation (NFF) has developed best practice guidance for farmers regarding requirements for the living and working arrangements of farm workers (either domestic or migrant) during the Covid-19 outbreak.
"We have asked the Chief Medical Officer to review these guidelines and it is critical that they are then considered by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee," says Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud.
"Sadly, there's been a significant number of Australians who've lost their jobs due to the economic impacts of Covid-19.
"I know some farmers have seen strong interest from job ads and we are keeping market testing requirements in place to ensure recruitment of Australians first."
Whiteside says growers will always have a preference to employ a local workforce.
"But the reality is that our industry relies on international workers to supplement the workers they need that cannot be sourced from the local labour pool," he says.
"he extension of Seasonal Worker Program, Pacific Labour Scheme and Working Holiday Maker visas is a much-needed short-term solution to what will become a larger problem as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to limit the number of foreign workers who can come to Australia."
Rogers says AFPA members have already put policies and procedures in place to safely manage their workforce and reduce risk of Covid-19 transmission on their farms, packing sheds and in the regional communities in which they operate.
"Food security in Australia relies on a healthy and safe workforce, so AFPA members and all growers are taking this seriously to ensure the continued supply of produce," he says.
Updated at 11:46am AEDT on 4 April 2020.