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Call for COVID support for migrant farm workers

11 August 20200 comments

Migrant workers are key to horticulture having become Australia’s fastest-growing agriculture sector, according to a senior union leader.

United Workers Union Farms director Jannette Armstrong says that without the input of migrant farm workers, the horticulture sector could not prosper.

But, she says, amid the COVIDF-19 crisis, they are being treated like “political hot potatoes”.

The NSW Agriculture Minister and NSW Health has decided seasonal workers who are visa holders will no longer be permitted entry into NSW.

And NSW Health clarified by saying no seasonal workers, regardless of visa status, can enter from Victoria.

Meanwhile, the federal Agriculture Minister is trying to convene an urgent meeting of state ministers, but it seems that NSW won’t agree.

At the same time, Prime Minister Morrison and Treasurer Frydenberg are refusing to expand JobKeeper or JobSeeker eligibility to include migrant farm workers who are stuck in limbo.

Ms Armstrong says many farm workers have endured months of little to no work.

“Despite doing the essential work of planting, growing, picking and packing our highly sought-after fresh fruit and vegetables for over a decade now, and paying taxes in Australia all those years, these workers are not eligible for government support through this pandemic,” she said.

“Restrictions on movement and confusing border closures at short notice have wreaked havoc for horticulture workers and employers alike,” Ms Armstrong said.

“We have members sitting in Victoria today who are desperate to work, but have few ways to feed themselves let alone keep warm, pay rent, or keep up their government mandated private health insurance premiums,” she said.

“Meanwhile, farmers in NSW and Queensland have had their expected labour supply cut off without notice, so fresh fruit and veg just will not make it to market. It is madness,” Ms Armstrong said.

She said farmers and employers rely on return migrant labour to grow their businesses.

“Skilled, hardworking people, who have spent seasons getting to know their farms, learning how to turn their hands to expertly twist the vines, or just the right amount of pressure to use to pick delicate fruit without bruising it,” Ms Armstrong said.

“If the Government does not step in soon, 2020 may be the last season for many skilled and experienced migrant farm workers. Once they can eventually go home, they may not be inclined to come back.

“The Prime Minister and his National Cabinet need to get this mess sorted immediately for the sake of basic humanity, public health, and our fresh food supply chain,” she said.

She called for a visa amnesty for farm workers and financial support for migrant farm workers who have lost work.

And also for a way to safely move farm workers across borders, including a quarantine regime if required.