NSW Agriculture Minister hints at long-awaited seasonal worker relief announcement | Ralph-Lauren

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The New South Wales Agriculture Minister says an announcement will be made this week to ease pressure on farmers who have been crying out for help to get crops from the farm to market.

It follows National Cabinet’s move to lift coronavirus passenger caps, which will allow more overseas workers to come in and fill 26,000 jobs going begging in the agriculture sector.

Eight hundred horticulture and abattoir workers are already bound for NSW since that announcement, which NSW Farmers president James Jackson said represented about 10 per cent of what was needed.

“We’ve estimated that the shortfall in NSW alone is about 8,000, coming up to a busy time for apples and our horticultural products and, indeed, shearers,” he said.

Mr Jackson said quarantining the workers was the obvious next step, but it would not be cheap.

“That $3,000 cost at the hotels is a problem,” he said.

“We’re certainly calling on National Cabinet and the NSW Government to look at the Queensland model of on-farm quarantine.”

NSW Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall said the arrival cap increase allowed “plenty of spaces” for overseas workers.

He said the 800 people en route to NSW would take the total number of overseas workers to have arrived in recent months to 1,300.

“Which is more than any other state, but still industry is feeling the pressure in terms of getting those workers here,” Mr Marshall said.

“The [quarantine] cost issue is a significant barrier, particularly for smaller industry players at the moment.

The Minister had previously called for a regional quarantine hub, but the idea was shot down.

He said the upcoming announcement would offer “relief both in terms of availability of workers, [and] in terms of the cost of quarantining”.

A man and a woman on an orange farm standing beside containers of the fruit.
Argentinians Karina Montenegro and Nicolas Straffurini had no trouble finding work after they got stranded in NSW.(ABC News: Jennifer Ingall)

‘We’ve got to move faster’

Primary producers have long battled labour shortages and many rely heavily on backpackers and casual staff to fill seasonal roles.

The spotlight shone brighter when the pandemic forced the international borders close in early 2020.

As farmers move into another year, patience is wearing thin.

“We’ve got to move a bit faster,” Mr Jackson said.

“We’ve got some new tools to combat this virus.

“We’re on the cusp of having the vaccines available, we’ve got shorter turnaround COVID testing and we’re starting to [better] understand … contact tracing.

“We can’t have these blunt instruments of lockdowns and these centralised [hotel] quarantine arrangements, because this virus is going to be with us for some time, regardless of the vaccine.”

Bags hanging in a corrugated iron shed.
Picking bags are at the ready, but they need workers to fill them.(ABC Rural: Clint Jasper)

Safe but flexible

More than $45 million of would-be revenue has been reported to the National Lost Crop Register (NLCR) since December.

One NSW grower told the NLCR they had “not been able to harvest any produce” and were “struggling to meet commitments and living expenses as a result”.

Another NSW farmer noted the “substantial” amount of stress.

“Seeing abundance in fruit, all just hanging there, dilapidating — we lost a prodigious amount of income,” they anonymously told the NLCR.

Mr Jackson said NSW Farmers was continuing to lobby governments but felt he had the backing of the NSW Minister.

“We’ve got to keep pressure on the government to make this as flexible, but as safe, as possible,” he said.

Mr Marshall said he hoped to fulfil that wish in the coming days.

“To make sure they can get the workers in, get them in a cost effective way, to make sure that we can keep production at full capacity,” he said.

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