Australia farm group seeks on-farm worker quarantine

National Farmers’ Federation says pilot program approval necessary to address COVID-19 workforce crisis

Australia’s National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) is seeking support for a New South Wales (NSW)-based pilot of on-farm quarantine for approved international workers ahead of this year’s harvest season.

The pilot would provide a pathway for approved workers waiting in Pacific nations, who have been deemed eligible to make the trip but who do not yet have a pathway to farm.

“We recognize the federal government’s efforts in keeping the Seasonal Worker Program and the Pacific Labour Mobility Program operational during the COVID-19 pandemic,” NFF CEO Tony Mahar said. “However, the limited number of placements and the significant cost of quarantine have proved barriers to the many, many international workers sitting, ready and waiting to start work on Australian farms. The cost impost to farmers has also made these programs out of reach to many farm businesses, even despite generous subsidies from some state governments.”

Conservative estimates indicate the national horticultural sector alone will be short about 16,000 workers this year. The industry has now reached the point where growers are unable to harvest their crops and risk losing millions of dollars’ worth of production.

Mahar said quarantine challenges also threatened to compromise the effectiveness of the new Ag Visa.

The NFF’s proposed pilot would be modeled on the arrangements established in Queensland for the Seasonal Worker Program Restart and consistent with public announcements about the “at-home” quarantine pilot and the opening of international borders, as announced on October 1.

“The No. 1 priority for farmers is keeping their families, their workers and communities safe from COVID-19,” Mahar said.

“The pilot would therefore apply the appropriate safeguards to limit risk, including an assessment of COVID-19 epidemiology of the nations from which the workers come, vaccine status and a robust testing regime. It should also be noted that many Pacific nations have never had community transmission of COVID-19 and most approved workers have received two doses of a TGA-approved vaccine.”

Mahar said that, after a successful NSW pilot, on-farm quarantine could be rolled out across other jurisdictions.

“We note that states such as NSW have flagged an intention to transition away from hotel quarantine arrangements to home quarantine when 80% of the state’s adult population have received double dose vaccination. On-farm quarantine should be viewed in the same vein as home quarantine,” Mahar said. “A pilot of on-farm quarantine arrangements would represent a safe and prudent pathway for international workers and would be recognition of the unfaltering work of farmers in keeping supermarket shelves stocked and the economy ticking in these challenging times.”