Fruit harvest in Australia

Tons of fruit, but nobody to pick it: Australian farmers are lacking helpers

Joy, friendship, camaraderie - despite the heat and hard work. "This is how a young backpacker from Europe describes his stay in the small Australian town of Young in a promotional video. Young, on the fifth continent, is a synonym for cherries Australia comes from this region in the state of New South Wales.

But now the country is threatened by the great cherry drought. Australia has hermetically closed its borders since March because of Covid-19. Australians can only leave the country with a special permit. When they return, they have to be quarantined in a hotel for 14 days - the cost is around 1,800 euros. Tourists are completely prohibited from entering the country. Young backpackers with a so-called "working holiday visa" are also affected by the measure. Austria also has a corresponding agreement with Australia. It allows young tourists - depending on their origin - to work for one or two years. Travelers with this visa have become the backbone of agriculture in Australia.

Too few backpackers

At least 40,000 tourists are needed every year to harvest fruits and vegetables in plantations and gardens. There are currently around 80,000 backpackers in Australia - last July there were 135,000.

Young is also dependent on the seasonally available labor for better or for worse. "We need 3,500 helpers a year to bring in the harvest," said Tom Eastlake, President of Young's cherry growers. Just days before the start of the harvest, the growers could not have secured the necessary labor. If they don't find a solution soon, one of the best harvests in recent years is in jeopardy. "We had the best weather conditions in a long time," said Eastlake. "Missing this chance is the last thing we want."

Australia is a leading global producer of fruits and vegetables. Almost 90 percent of the harvest, with a total value of around seven billion euros, is exported to over 60 countries. The fear is also great in other agricultural regions. Hardly anyone expects Australia's borders to reopen before the end of this year. Some observers believe that entry will not be possible until mid-2021.

In their distress, producers try to win over locals as harvest workers. But traveling in Australia itself is also hindered by border closures between individual states. Although they are slowly being relaxed again, it is not always possible, even for those interested, to justify the costs of traveling hundreds of kilometers in order to then work for a modest income.

Bad reputation

The horticultural industry has a reputation for paying particularly poorly and for exploiting young harvest workers financially. There are repeated reports of sexual assaults by farmers on young backpackers. According to media reports, the Australian government now wants to consider granting an amnesty to those tourists who have stayed in the country despite their visa expiry if they commit to work in the horticultural industry afterwards. It is estimated that tens of thousands of mostly young people will be illegally in Australia after their visa expires. (Urs Wältin from Canberra, October 5th, 2020)