Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has ramped up the pressure on Victoria, demanding it allow thousands of seasonal workers to arrive to fix an acute labour shortage.
COVID-19 has devastated Australian industries heavily reliant on seasonal workers, particularly agriculture and hospitality, as the pandemic continues to stop overseas flights from entering.
A federal government scheme offering Australians $6000 to relocate for fruit-picking jobs has attracted less than 500 people, with the public warned to expect higher food prices as a result.
The crisis has left more than $38m worth of unpicked fruit and vegetables to rot, and Agriculture Minister David Littleproud conceded the government had struggled to entice Australians to the bush.
“Australians don’t want these types of jobs, I’ve got be honest. Even before COVID, farmers were struggling to incentivise workers to come out from Australia to do this,” he told ABC Radio on Tuesday.
The government has instead shifted focus to importing a temporary workforce from the Pacific Island nations via its seasonal worker program.
Victoria has not joined other states in signing off on seasonal worker protocols despite needing more than 20,000 workers.
The Andrews government has faced criticism for ushering in tennis stars from COVID-hit nations for the Australian Open, despite the acute labour shortage.
But Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters on Tuesday seasonal worker arrivals and the Australian Open were “not mutually exclusive”.
State governments have been offered a proposal in which health provider Aspen Medical takes charge of hotel quarantine for seasonal workers, quarantines them on farms or sets up a tent city to house them.
The federal government has pushed for an Aspen-built quarantine facility in Mildura.
He confirmed Premier Andrews had raised issues with seasonal worker arrivals at national cabinet in December, but said Queensland had already implemented on-farm quarantining.
“I think it’s a very innovative way of managing that issue. We would welcome constructive proposals about how this can be better managed,” he said.
“The agreement we made at the last national cabinet meeting, we highlighted the need to have some special accommodations around seasonal workers.
“Those needs currently are most pressing in Victoria at the moment.”
Mr Littleproud has accused the Andrews government of dragging its feet.
“They’ve had nearly six months to make a decision on that,” he said.
“Greg Hunt himself, as the federal health Minister, made it very clear to the Victorian health Minister: the federal government sees no impediment in us signing the visas under any of those proposals.
“Aspen is a highly recognised national company. Please just do your job and we will stamp the visas. It’s as simple as that.”
Aspen has 100 staff across three Melbourne hotels to facilitate quarantine for the Australian Open.
Mr Littleproud also played down concerns from Victoria that seasonal workers would defy quarantine protocols, saying similar systems had been successfully implemented in other jurisdictions.
“The smallest jurisdiction in the country, the Northern Territory, put something in place as far back as September, yet Victoria is still standing by watching this happen,” he said.