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Article

Australia: Seasonal worker program must be reactivated and expanded to avoid food shortage

"Without seasonal workers, Australia may face a hungry summer", 3 August 2020

As Victoria's Covid-19 outbreak threatens to spiral out of control and beyond its borders, Australia faces another pandemic-related crisis.

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In essence the issue is this: a large proportion of Australia's harvest labour is done by people from abroad who are unable to travel. As the months tick down towards the summer harvest there are simply not enough people to pick the fruit.

If this doesn't change the result is likely to be shortages and price rises for horticultural products and, even more seriously, devastating hardship for our primary producers.

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One solution would be to reactivate and expand the seasonal worker program as a priority.

Germany and Canada have already done this, reopening their borders to seasonal workers, subject to quarantine requirements and enhanced provisions intended to ensure the health and safety of the workers once they arrive.

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Another benefit of expanding/reopening the program is that it will reduce the level of exploitation in the agricultural workforce.

The under-payment of backpackers and various sorts of off-the-books labour continues to be rife – the most comprehensive study on this matter so far found that one-third of them get less than the minimum wage.

The program was set up specifically to avoid this type of exploitation and has largely been successful.

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While worker exploitation can, unfortunately, never be entirely legislated out of existence, the evidence that the seasonal workers program dramatically reduces it is strong.

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Reopening the seasonal worker program could be a moment in which the Australia-Pacific partnership comes of age, pointing the direction to a future defined by mutual help rather than development aid.

It needs to be considered a matter of national priority.