State premiers must increase hotel quarantine cap for seasonal workers

State governments could increase the hotel quarantine cap to accommodate more seasonal workers if they invested funding allocated for failed incentive programs aimed at Australians, according to the nation’s peak industry body for citrus.

With the national citrus harvest beginning in Queensland, Citrus Australia CEO Nathan Hancock said tens of thousands of workers were still required for citrus alone.

Despite additional quarantine programs announced in each state, only 2600 workers from the Pacific Islands have entered Australia so far. Many of these workers have been placed in meat processing facilities.

A $17.4 million Federal Government scheme that provides $6000 in accommodation and transport costs to Australians willing to pick fruit and vegetables has attracted only 268 Australians, according to figures from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

State schemes have proven similarly unsuccessful.

“We have to call it as it is, and that is, when Australians won’t do the jobs, the jobs still need to be done and I can’t have, as is occurring, horticulturalists ploughing their produce back into their fields because they can’t get workers.

“That is a tragedy for our economy and particularly for those producers.”

Mr Hancock said the citrus industry was sincerely grateful for those Australians who took the opportunity to pick fruit. However, the numbers are inadequate.

“Official figures from the Department of Home Affairs reveal there are less than 45,000 backpackers in the country – 100,000 less than pre-COVID figures,” Mr Hancock said.

“Backpackers traditionally pick fruit for three months to qualify for a second-year visa and their absence makes a swift government response even more critical.”

Mr Hancock has called on all states, as well as the Federal Government, to review the money spent on failed incentive programs and advertising campaigns directed at Australians and utilise it to raise the number of beds in hotel quarantine.

“I’d like to call on the premiers of Australia to consider turning some of the funding they have set aside for incentives or advertising for Australians to work and to consider using that to increase the number of available beds in the hotel quarantine systems.

“We simply don’t have enough hotel quarantine available to make sure that smaller growers can bring in seasonal workers as they need them.

“That will be a far better use of our money and we will quickly increase the numbers of people that are coming into the country to work in horticulture.

“National Cabinet has already approved accepting more workers from the Pacific Islands outside the cap for returning Australians.

“More than 2600 workers have already been brought into Australia with no cases of COVID detected prior to their departure or during their quarantine in Australia. Minister Littleproud has previously stated there are more than 20,000 workers in the Pacific Islands available and ready to work.

“The only limiting factor is the decision by all state governments not to allocate more resources to their police and health departments to ensure adequate hotel quarantine is available.

“Whilst we acknowledge the efforts of the states to create pathways for additional workers, these are either too expensive, heavily regulated or also hampered by a lack of funding.

“Some of the state solutions we have seen, such as the Queensland government’s regional quarantine facility, are grossly inadequate. They are asking too much of an industry already stretched to breaking point, putting all the onus on growers to deliver a facility, cover all the costs, and develop all the procedures right before harvest commences.

“Frankly, we can’t wait for the new in-country quarantine pilot to be enacted either, although this may be an answer long-term. 

“Governments must turn the funding for attracting local workers to expanding hotel quarantine now. They can and they must.

“We urge the Premiers, the Prime Minister, the Minister for Immigration and the Federal Minister for Agriculture to put their heads together to get more seasonal workers through Hotel Quarantine to quickly address this increasingly desperate issue.”

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