The work is there … but will nomads be picked?

With the fruit picking season in full swing in many areas, grey nomads are once again joining the armies of backpackers and overseas workers in the nation’s orchards, vineyards and farms.

While some media reports have claimed the fruit-picking industry is rife with unscrupulous operators, there is still no shortage of older travellers seeking to finance trips with a stint of picking.

Bruce and Denise King are among them. They have been on the road in their Jayco Freedom for six years, and are already on their third season picking grapes in the New South Wales Hunter Valley. While the Kings are delighted to be supplementing their incomes and don’t mind hard work, it seems young Australian welfare recipients aren’t always as keen.

Recent media reports labelled them “too lazy” to work harvesting jobs. It has meant farmers are leaning ever more heavily on backpackers. An initiative from the Howard government which gave foreigners an extension to their working visa if they worked in agriculture for three months in rural Australia has seen more overseas travellers seeking picking work.

However, some unscrupulous worker supply contractors have seized the opportunity to exploit this itinerant class of casual workers, many of whom have English as a second language and are unfamiliar with Australian law. One Victorian grower has apparently been paying pickers as little as 60c an hour, and the Fair Work Ombudsman is in the middle of a three-year investigation into the issue.

According to media reports, one audit of 22 Hunter Valley businesses found 80% of the 500 workers were from overseas and most were under 25. Despite their reputation for reliability and a strong work ethic, some grey nomads feel the working holiday visa changes have made it harder for them to find farm work.

Ted and Dianne H had experience working in packhouses and were keen to follow the harvest trail when they began their Big Lap adventure, but they have been disappointed.

“We found in South Australia that, unless you were staying at a backpackers’ hostel, you could not get work,” said Dianne. “I found the agencies were not very helpful.”

And grey nomads could also soon be facing stronger competition from backpackers for other kinds of work. Regional tourism operators are pushing for changes to the working holiday visa, so that backpackers looking to extend their stay can work in regional restaurants, caravan parks, and motels, as well as on farms.

Australian Regional Tourism Network chairperson, David Sheldon, said it was “extremely difficult” to find enough qualified labour, and backpackers often had the required skills.


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