Fruit pickers’ scarcity bites, leads to island ‘bubble’ push

OF the $32.8m lost from unpicked fruit and vegetables across Australia, $31m is from Queensland.

North Queensland's shortage of fruit pickers is likely to create issues for next season's harvest with farmers preferring not to plant new crops if they are to be left to rot in the field.

Earlier this week News Corp revealed the Queensland government's flagship agricultural scheme, designed to address the critical worker shortage, had only signed up 85 people, with all but a few quitting before the eight-week program ended.

The Back to Work in Agriculture Scheme pays up to $1500 for workers to temporarily relocate and pick crops in regional Queensland.

Townsville-based Senator Susan McDonald says farmers don't want to waste the time, money and resources on fertilising, pruning and managing crops when the crops will never be picked. "We're coming into another peak produce period with avocados, vegetables and bananas," Senator McDonald said.

"If they are not picked, they will rot and the follow-on impact is that farmers are making decisions about what crops to plan going forward.

"Farmers are telling me they're not going to risk planting a crop at great cost."

Senator McDonald said it was time for a bubble with the Pacific Island countries that do not have coronavirus cases.

Senator Susan McDonald speaks. PICTURE: MATT TAYLOR.
Senator Susan McDonald speaks. PICTURE: MATT TAYLOR.

The bubble would include the Pacific Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga.

"We have approvals in place for 22,000 workers," Senator McDonald said.

Senator McDonald said if something was not done soon, there would be an increase in food prices and a reduction in production.

The senator said for decades, Australia had been using overseas workers to pick fruit and vegetables because Australians were not interested in the work.

"We have for a couple of generations now been using a workforce primarily from countries that are always looking to use the season work program as an economic pathway to their own futures in their own countries," she said.

"They come to Australia, they pick fruit for seasons, they send the money home so they can build a house or start a small business.

"We have a great relationship with Pacific Island workers that are willing and able to do the jobs that Australians have now evolved from."

Senator McDonald said there were a lot of jobs in agriculture. "For every three casual fruit pickers, it equates to one Australian permanent job," she said.

"When we can't get the casual workers, we are now eating into Australian jobs and this is another critical element of why this crisis is so serious."

Originally published as Fruit pickers' scarcity bites, leads to island 'bubble' push