The Federal Government is on the cusp of answering the agricultural industry's call to extend backpacker and seasonal worker visas to allow fruit and vegetables to stay on shelves, and keep farmers in business.
Last night the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance (AFPA) urged the government to take action on the issue to ensure the virus outbreak does not jeopardise growers' ability to supply fresh produce for all Australians.
"If we do not secure these extensions workers will need to return to their home countries and there will not be the required workers to harvest a large number of fruit and vegetable crops, meaning Australians will not have access to healthy and nutritious fresh produce at this unprecedented time," said AFPA CEO Michael Rogers.
Speaking on ABC Country Hour, Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud said the government was "very close" to making some announcements around changes to visa arrangements.
He said visa entitlements and conditions that currently exist under schemes for Pacific Islanders, seasonal workers, holidaymakers or backpackers, would be extended.
"We've got to understand there's over 140,000 backpackers in the country at the moment, and over 7000 Pacific Island workers with their visas," he said.
"So there is a workforce that is here and it's about making sure that we continue to provide continuity to our producers."
When asked about potential working avenues in the sector for people made unemployed by the Covid-19 crisis, Littleproud replied that there was an opportunity for dislocated people who have lost their jobs.
"But you've got to appreciate that many of those will be in metropolitan Australia," he clarified.
"Now, will a worker in the hospitality industry want to go and pick oranges in Gayndah in Queensland, or go to the Northern Territory when they have family and they have commitments in metropolitan Australia for a six to eight-week period? We have to be pragmatic about the practical reality of people and how they'll act in this."
Michael Rogers of the AFPA explained last night that there are significant numbers of Australians among the 80,000 people employed in fresh produce across the country, as well as seasonal workers from the Pacific and Timor-Leste, and backpackers from around the world.
"While there will be significant employment opportunities for Australians, with AFPA member businesses already employing more than 5,500 Australians across every state of Australia, industry also urgently needs an immediate extension of the visas for seasonal workers and backpackers who are currently in Australia," he said.
Updated at 5:17pm AEDT on 19 March 2020.
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