Fruit firms and growers have been unable to find sufficient seasonal or casual labour to help harvest and handle ripened fruit.
Local news agencies estimate that the labour shortage is in the thousands.
Hundreds of tonnes of fruit wasted
Previously, we reported on NQ Paradise Pines in Queensland posting a photo on Facebook of tonnes of pineapple left to rot and accusing tinned food firm Golden Circle of not supporting the Australian pineapple industry.
But the rot doesn’t stop at pineapple, with the problem of uncollected and unprocessed fruit spanning various fruit crops and Australian states, especially in the South.
Fruit Growers Victoria said that cherries and other stone-fruit crops were badly affected. In Tasmania, several hundred tonnes of fruit such as strawberries have been left to rot.
“The larger corporate growers, to a degree, are fine. Some are not and certainly some of the smaller growers definitely are not,” Phil Pike, business development manager for Fruit Growers Tasmania told ABC News.
Backpacker Tax to blame?
Voices on the ground say the “Backpacker Tax” introduced by the Australian federal government at the start of 2017 has had a negative impact. This taxes pickers on working holiday visas at 15% from the first dollars earned.
Farmers and associations in both Victoria and Tasmania have expressed the desire to open a dialogue with government officials on the Seasonal Worker Programme, and hopefully to ring in some changes to regulation — including in the duration of legal immigration passes — in order to deal with this seasonal crisis.
Tasmania Primary Industries minister Jeremy Rockliff said the government was working closely with Fruit Growers Tasmania and relevant stakeholders to address the situation.
“We provided funding to establish the TasAg jobs portal and this portal is proving very successful in linking producers across various agriculture and aquaculture sectors with job seekers,” he had said.
Backlash from industry’s bad rep
The Backpacker Tax and other strict legislation introduced, such contractual terms, were the result of a government crackdown on allegedly exploitative employment practices adopted by some elements of the Australian horticulture industry.
English filmmaker Katherine Stoner has a crowdfunding page on Indiegogo raising money for her film, “88 Days”, documenting the duration of her stay and experiences, and the industry she calls “modern-day slavery in Australia”.
“Every year thousands of young people travel to Australia, to start a year of working and travelling on a working holiday visa… There are far too many stories of backpackers getting financially, sexually and violently exploited,” Stoner says on her site.
In response to this, the Australian government has taken several measures such as setting up a registry for employers of working holiday makers, as well as the Policy to Protect Vulnerable Workers and the Migrant Workers Taskforce.
On a lighter note, some have been trying to deal with their challenges in a more positive way, such as Queensland mango farmer Brian Burton, who has been giving away his entire crop of fruit to charities and people in need.
His bumper crop of mangoes arrived three weeks early. Together with a shortage of labour, there was no way that the fruit could be harvested and processed in time.
Among them, welfare volunteers and community welfare workers, including with the elderly, have come to pick and take 80,000 out of about 100,000 mangoes.