OVERFLOW ACCOMMODATION: Fruit picker Ian Hindle with Riverton Citrus co-owner Narelle Emmerton checking the Murcott mandarins. Photo: Shirley Way
OVERFLOW ACCOMMODATION: Fruit picker Ian Hindle with Riverton Citrus co-owner Narelle Emmerton checking the Murcott mandarins. Photo: Shirley Way

Orchardist talks held over COVID-19 'humanitarian crisis'

A POTENTIAL humanitarian catastrophe is emerging in the North Burnett, as more than 30 orchards hold crisis talks about the housing situation for seasonal workers. 

OVER 30 orchards across the North Burnett attended a teleconference call to discuss the potential humanitarian crisis that could hit the region.

Orchardists from Gayndah and Mundubbera met with Citrus Australia CEO Nathan Hancock online to confer about the number of seasonal workers arriving in the region.

Gayndah and District Fruitgrowers Association secretary Judy Shepherd said there were two important points discussed.

"The government last week brought in a new registration process for the backpackers, and they've just announced this policy, but we haven't got the details as yet," Mrs Shepherd said.

"There was also a fairly strong consensus that it would be preferable to have community overflow accommodation facilities in both towns."

There has been growing concerns from the community about the amount of accommodation options available for international pickers during this national health crisis.

As it stands, campgrounds, real estate agents, and hostels in the region are either full up, or are turning travellers away due to COVID-19 concerns.

"We're trying to get around what might potentially be an accommodation issue for workers.

"The growers would love to see something set up where there are facilities, and where things around isolation and social distancing could be better managed."

The industry and the community have been stressing the need of overflow accommodation for a number of years according to Mrs Shepherd.

"The farms are getting bigger, and there's fruit there that needs to be picked.

"The suggestions are that farms can accommodate those workers, but there aren't many farms that can accommodate their entire workforce," she said.

"Certainly not under these rules of isolation and distancing."

Workers at Gayndah's Crossroads citrus farm in 2018. Picture: Felicity Ripper
Workers at Gayndah's Crossroads citrus farm in 2018. Picture: Felicity Ripper

There has already been a minor win for farmers and pickers just last week, where visas were extended for seasonal workers beyond their 88 days.

"That has been a real worry for a lot of backpackers.

"So now the next thing we have to think about is safe accommodation."

From an industry perspective, orchardists have to look at varying scenarios in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

"As farmers if we accept them on our farms, and support them while they're picking our fruit for the next five to six weeks, are we morally responsible for them if they're not able to move on elsewhere?"

Mrs Shepherd is citing the steady rise in restrictions, which has seen Australia continually lockdown to stem the spread of COVID-19.

"There may not be the capacity to travel elsewhere, so would it be right for us at that stage to tell them that the work has finished and they should head off?

"We could end up with our own weird internal refugee system if we're not careful."

Many backpackers across the region according to Mrs Shepherd do not have the funds to return home, leaving them to be possibly displaced.

"There's a large contingent of northern Europeans who are in the region, from places such as Estonia and Lithuania.

"Because there are no direct flights or national airline, they can't transit through Dubai, so even if they have a choice, they have to pay $5000 for a one-way ticket.

"There's the potential for a humanitarian crisis if we don't realise there isn't any permanent accommodation for them."

Mr Hancock states growers across Australia are already adjusting to their housing arrangements and workplace practices in the orchards to cater to social distancing and hygiene requirements.

He believes however the government must assist local councils in providing adequate facilities in what are often small towns for any workers potentially exposed to COVID-19 to self-isolate.

"The seasonal workforce, and agricultural businesses, are crucial to the economic wellbeing of these councils, and some councils have taken up the challenge to prepare for these unusual circumstances.

"Government assistance is both necessary, and warranted."


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