Australia turns to backpackers as Omicron devastates workforce

Canberra has issued an urgent appeal for foreign backpackers to help staff Australia’s farms, shops and restaurants after a crippling labour shortage forced store closures and squeezed the fresh fruit and meat supply.

The invitation marks a striking turnround for Australia. The government all but sealed its borders almost two years ago to protect the country from the coronavirus pandemic, with many Australian citizens stranded abroad for months.

The strict border policies hit the farming industry particularly hard. The industry has historically relied on backpackers, who make up about 80 per cent of the 40,000-strong seasonal workforce.

When border restrictions were lifted in December for vaccinated travellers, “there was a cry of joy and delight from the industry”, said Ben Rogers at the National Farmers’ Federation. “It was really welcome news.”

But the joy was shortlived. The rapid spread of Omicron has led to a labour shortage that has affected farms, supermarkets, restaurants and bars. The Australian Retailers’ Association said that up to half of the country’s shop workers had to isolate this month, forcing some stores to reduce operating hours and others to shut.

The labour crunch has grown so acute that Scott Morrison, the prime minister, suggested this week that teenagers be allowed to drive forklifts to alleviate worker shortages in the logistics industry. The plan was almost immediately shelved.

Another proposal raised by David Williams, a veteran dealmaker in agriculture and consumer goods, called for asylum seekers stuck in hotels and detention centres to work on farms and harvest fruit and vegetables.

Supplies of citrus fruit, grapes and apples have been among the worst affected by the shortage. “There was also a lot of anxiety about avocados,” Rogers added.

Morrison said 23,500 young foreigners had been granted working holiday visas but the number of backpackers flying into the country was still low.

“We want you to come to Australia and enjoy a holiday here in Australia . . . and at the same time join our workforce and help us in our agricultural sector, in our hospitality sector, and so many of the other parts of the economy that rely on that labour,” the prime minister said.

The gravity of Canberra’s plight has been underlined by a A$3m ($2.2m) grant to Tourism Australia to target backpackers and students with a new marketing campaign. The government also promised to refund any visa application fees for backpackers and students who arrive in the next 12 weeks at a cost of A$55m.

Backpackers need to spend 88 days on a farm to qualify for a visa.

On Thursday, the government released data that revealed that unemployment had fallen to 4.2 per cent in December, the lowest level since 2008.

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