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'Terrible response to serious issue': Growers blast government over fruit picking disaster

'Terrible response to serious issue': Growers blast government over fruit picking disaster

Angry fruit growers in Victoria have criticised the state government over its handling of the seasonal workers program, insisting the influx of more than a thousand Pacific workers is too late.

Hundreds of workers have touched down in Victoria as part of a scheme that will fly in 1500 workers from Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Samoa in coming weeks to work on Victoria’s farms and fill an extreme gap caused by the lack of backpackers.

But growers entering their last month of harvest are far from happy.

Goulburn Valley orchardist Peter Hall said he had made desperate attempts to find workers as far back as November last year, but ultimately only 20 were available to work on his farm during the peak of the season in January and February.

The workers were paid double and triple the usual rate as a result of the crisis, but growers faced an estimated 20 per cent loss in revenue.

Mr Hall called the season “a complete stuff-up”.

“We’ve got a month to go with harvest and it’s too little, too late,” he said.

“We’ve had less money and in some cases you don’t recover the cost of growing – you’ll get juice or a low value price.

“This year’s been a write-off for all of us.”

Victorian growers unable to find workers desperately heckled the government to build a worker-specific quarantine program in Mildura, with a plan to bring in 200 workers every fortnight from last November, but their requests were ignored.

The lack of government support left the industry reeling, with some operations forced to throw out hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of produce as fruit rotted on the trees.

It also forced farmers to find alternative markets due to the lower quality of the fruit.

“Every crop has been delayed and it’s had impact on its quality – in most cases you won’t see dramatic pictures of fruit rotting on the ground, but you’ll see the impact on the fruit,” Mr Hall said.

“I think (the government) was just hoping somehow it would look after itself, but it was a terrible response to a serious issue.”

Victorian Agriculture Minister Mary-Anne Thomas on Tuesday plugged the new worker program, telling reporters it would provide “a much-needed boost” to Victorian farms.

Workers flew into the country last month to undertake 14 days of quarantine in Tasmania before arriving in Victoria over the weekend.

Ms Thomas said the pandemic had “exposed” the industry’s “overreliance” on overseas workers, and the government’s focus was on attracting local workers to the industry.

The local campaign has attracted 500 local applications so far.

“Without a doubt it has been a challenging year for growers,” Ms Thomas said.

“We’re living through a global pandemic and that means any industry that relies on overseas workers is going to find itself under the pump and has to find other ways to attract a local workforce.”

The 1500 workers will arrive in full in Victoria by June, but state Nationals leader Peter Walsh said the program was six months too late.

He called the new scheme an attempt by the government to cover up their inability to manage the program.

“They should be actually starting to plan for next season now because it’s going to be a while before we have backpackers travelling in numbers again, and it’s absolutely critical we have a better process,” Mr Walsh said.

“But I have zero confidence in them being able to deliver next year based on the history of how they’ve handled this.”

While the government has committed to 1500 workers, the situation will be continually reviewed.

Mr Hall also said he had “no confidence” in the government taking any meaningful action.

“If they were interested in solving the issue, they would’ve had this organised late last year,” he said.

“For us, all it appears to be is about Facebook likes and social media announcements and not about solving the issue or helping the industry.’