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Young Australians should consider taking a gap year to pick fruit and vegetables because it will make a great “Instagram moment,” Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said.
“If you know somebody who might be on the coast who might be lounging around with a surfboard, tell them to come to the regions,” he told the Regional Australia Institute on Wednesday, AAP reported. “Bring their mobile with them because it would be a great Instagram moment for them to get up the tree to pick some fruit.”
McCormack’s comments come as the country’s state and federal governments try to get university students and school leavers to take up farm jobs as it grapples with a shortage of seasonal labor which industry groups warn could result in produce being left to rot and higher grocery costs.
Australia’s borders remain mostly closed to the international workers the industry relies on, while domestic border restrictions introduced to stem the spread of Covid-19 have limited local worker mobility and exacerbated the shortage.
The country’s horticulture sector alone is facing a shortfall of 26,000 workers in the coming six months, according to a report from EY commissioned by Hort Innovation. The shortage is also expected to hit the coming winter grains harvest.
“Usually at this time of the year, there are about 140,000 backpackers in Australia, 30% of which are employed in agriculture. Right now, there are only 67,000 backpackers in the country,” National Farmers Federation Chief Executive Tony Mahar said in a statement.
The shortage could see some growers left with no option but to plow “ripe crops back into the ground,” Mahar said.
Industry groups are calling for the government to consider urgently restarting a program to allow overseas workers to enter the country to fill the gap.
The government is considering incentives for workers on unemployment benefits to take up farm labor, as well as scrapping an age limit on its working holidaymaker visa to allow people 31 years and over to continue to work in agriculture, the Australian newspaper reported.
It has previously allowed some temporary visa holders already in the country and working in the agriculture sector to extend their stays, while a pilot program has brought in workers from Vanuatu to assist with the mango harvest.