Updated: Dec 16, 2020
ANU student Guy Nicol scraps travel for COVID-19 jobs as fruit pickers | The Canberra Times
Guy Nicol, 19, is planning to work on a tomato farm over summer. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
Guy Nicol was supposed to be on the trip of a lifetime by the end of this year, backpacking overseas after his first year at ANU. But instead of hiking through the Alps or motorbiking across the Hai Van Pass, he'll be picking tomatoes for hours on end in the searing summer heat.
With overseas travel off the cards and after a year stuck indoors in virtual classes, Mr Nicol is opting to spend his summer in Guyra, in northern NSW, helping one of hundreds of desperate farmers around the country struggling to pick their crops without backpackers or seasonal migrant workers.
"It's going to provide [me] a lot of informal life experience, some character-building and lessons about putting your head down and working because obviously it's quite hard work," he said.
"It allows for really good knowledge of the way the Australian agriculture system works, which is really the lifeblood of Australia - which is relevant to my studies."
Mr Nicol's plans are part of a new initiative encouraging school-leavers to fruit-pick their way around Australia as an alternative rite of passage to overseas backpacking.
Social enterprise Thankful4Farmers launched its Go and Pick initiative this week, connecting 18-25 year olds with agricultural employers and accommodation around the country in a bid to promote "PickPacking" as a desirable gap-year alternative.
Thankful4Farmers chief executive Kim McDonnell said the initiative was formulated in response to the recent Ernst & Young report projecting a 26,000-worker shortage in the agriculture industry.
"We have got a wonderful opportunity to change perceptions and address any concerns that Australians may have about this industry." Thankful4Farmers chief executive Kim McDonnell
"Farmers don't have the labour to pick produce, and are making heartbreaking decisions about what they can harvest and what they can't, sometimes plowing produce back into the ground and [sometimes] just not being able to pick it at all," she said.
As well as linking up young people with prospective employers, the initiative would offer a range of resources including help accessing government relocation grants and Austudy benefits.
Ms McDonnell said it was a great opportunity to travel and gain some life experience while international travel was off the cards, and to explore the "beautiful country in our own backyard".
"You will be embraced by the local community and I don't think you can underestimate the power of that community when so many young people are experiencing increased mental health issues and stress due to COVID-19," she said.
Ms McDonnell hoped the project could evolve into a more long-term solution to agriculture's labour shortage. "This is not just a six-week initiative or for the harvest happening right now," she said. "This is a unique opportunity to readdress Australia's reliance on international workers and create a pipeline of young Aussies who want to get out there and supplement international seasonal workers."
Tullamore wheat farmer Fiona Aveyard has hosted many international backpackers in years past, often putting them up in the family home, and has seen first-hand how enriching the experience could be. "It's a hard sell. The work is hard and it's dusty, but when you're young and you're having fun with a good group of people it's a great experience," she said.
Having young people work seasonally isn't just a boon for farmers, but for rural communities themselves, she said. "In regional and remote Australia the demographic is very different, so there's something really enriching for children to meet someone who travels. It gives them something to aspire to," Ms Aveyard said.
Employers of seasonal migrant workers and backpackers on working holiday visas, particularly fruit-pickers, have been criticised recently for alleged incidents of worker exploitation and mistreatment, prompting an investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman in September.
Ms McDonnell said all employers that were part of the Go and Pick initiative had been verified by the federal government's Harvest Trail services program and "the due diligence had been done. We have got a wonderful opportunity to change perceptions and address any concerns that Australians may have about this industry," she said.
Mr Nicol said he felt assured the employers on the Go and Pick website had been verified and knew relevant labour laws. United Workers Union farms director Jannette Armstrong said the industry still needed stronger regulation, and that lapses in regulation had allowed dodgy contractors to exploit backpackers.
"If this initiative does go ahead, our advice for all school-leavers who might go 'pick packing' is to make sure you know your rights and join the United Workers Union before you set out on your adventure," she said.
"Travel and work in groups and look for work that is paid hourly as opposed to piece rates - poor piece rates are a common way that farmworkers are underpaid and exploited."
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