Backpackers stay to assist Tasmanian fruit growers

With borders closing and quarantine measures are put in place around the world, some backpackers are choosing to stay in Tasmania to wait out the COVID-19 pandemic.

And while they have had no trouble finding work, there are significantly fewer foreign languages being spoken on farms that are usually populated by travellers during picking season.

Spreyton orchard RW Squibb and Sons managing director Brett Squib said that for the first time in recent history, the majority of his workforce is made up of locals.

"Normally we sort of have 75 per cent backpackers and 25 per cent locals but this year it is completely the opposite," he said.

"We've had about 45 pickers and I think we had eight backpackers ... the rest have been locals.

"We had a lot of backpackers around early but since all the virus things started to happen we are not seeing backpackers coming in looking for work."

He said instead, the workforce is made up of people looking for work after losing their jobs due to the pandemic.

"We've got a real mix of people, from probably 17 to up to 60 years old," Mr Squibb said.

"We've got guys who have turned up on their own who have been laid off because of business shutdowns, we've got young guys that this is their first-ever job, we've got some mothers who drop their kids off at school and come out picking and we've got some 17-year-old girls out there working together."

Some of his workforce is also made up of backpackers who have chosen to stay in Tasmania because they feel safe here. 

Backpackers already in Tasmania and working in the agricultural sector have been deemed essential workers, along with all fisheries, food production and supply jobs. 

Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association chief executive Peter Skillern welcomed that determination.

"I don't think anyone would argue that the production of food at any time let alone at this time is anything but an essential service," he said.

"Farmers are continuing to produce food both in Tasmania and in Australia. It is worth noting we export 75 per cent of agricultural production in this state, we can categorically feed Tasmanians several times over if we need to."

He said backpackers make up an integral part of the agriculture industries labour force.

"Backpackers are an integral component of the workforce for the agricultural sector in ordinary times," he said.

"Clearly through this pandemic and the issues that surround that they will remain an integral part of that."

Italian backpacker Claudia Marcellucci and her Spanish friend Erik Bertrand have been working as pickers on farms around the state.

"It feels like the safest option [to stay here] right now, back home it is not looking good," Mr Bertrand said.

"It seems like here it is going to be much easier, for now, to have a job and make a living."

Ms Marcellucci had originally planned on going to Thailand later this year to start a conservation program with her boyfriend.

"I don't know if I will be able to go to Thailand, we are just living day by day and we will see what we can do," Ms Marcellucci said.

She said she decided to stay in Tasmania instead of returning home to avoid the potential of infecting her parents.

"The situation now in Italy is very bad, all the people are stuck in their houses doing nothing," Ms Marcellucci said.

"Here the situation is still okay so I can live here and work and save some money. It is more safe for us."

Mr Bertrand, whose home country of Spain is experiencing a much worse outbreak than Australia, said people should be taking the pandemic more seriously.

"Everything looked fine and it was not spreading that much in Spain and Italy," he said.

"It got very complicated in a matter of days and I would just suggest people take it very seriously."
He said, luckily, they had organised work on farms and can continue to make a living while waiting it out in Tasmania.

Mr Bertrand and Ms Marcellucci having been renting a house in Launceston but some backpackers who were relying on hostels are finding it difficult to find someone to stay.

Devonport-based Tasman Backpackers managing director Ben Bovill said they were still experiencing a high demand for accommodation because other venues were closing down.

"Basically because they haven't got anywhere else to go at the moment they are desperately looking for accommodation," he said.

"The fear is basically what happens if they lose their jobs?

"What happens if the hostel closes down like some of the others have?

"I think there needs to be some better clarification from the government about who is allowed to stay and the jobs they are doing that are essential."

Fruit Growers Tasmania chief executive Peter Cornish said backpackers were traditionally a relatively high proportion of the picking workforce.

But now, the sector was looking to employ local people where it could.

"We were contacted by Federal Group the week before last, they reached out and we had a chat with them, we put some things out particularly on the apple harvest side about how they might be able to feed any requirements back through to Federal," Mr Cornish said.

"They were keen to try and look after their casual workforce."

But most growers already had plans in place.

"For the apple harvest the growers had to be ready some weeks ago," he said.

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