Statement attributable to Jannette Armstrong, executive director, United Workers Union farms, regarding recent Victoria-NSW border stops and turn backs of workers on the Seasonal Worker Program:
This ban is discriminatory, unfair, and unhelpful. Coronavirus does not discriminate based on citizenship or visa status, but what we’ve seen repeatedly throughout this pandemic is that Liberal governments do.
The ability of workers to find further work is hampered due to the nature of the harvest trail.
There is not a lot of work in Victoria at the moment. Many workers will likely be able to pick up hours when the asparagus season in Victoria comes on, but that is still many weeks away.
Workers are in limbo until then, and even then won’t be guaranteed work. Meanwhile farmers in NSW and Queensland are having their anticipated labour force cut off without warning.
Many migrant seasonal workers were invited to Australia, to help cover our shortfalls in labour demand and to help grow, pick, and pack the fresh fruit and veg Australians have relied on throughout this pandemic.
Despite paying taxes in Australia, these workers have no access to Federal Government support – no JobKeeper, no JobSeeker – and now border restrictions are also arbitrarily cutting off their only source of income: legitimate work.
How will they pay their rent? How will they pay to keep up their government-mandated private health insurance? How will they feed themselves?
As per the report United Workers Union released in May about ‘Covid-19 and the Risks to Undocumented Workers in Australia’, migrant workers may be at greater risk in some circumstances, but they are not a greater threat.
Seasonal migrant workers may be more vulnerable to Covid-19 given the conditions many are subjected to, but it is dangerous and discriminatory to single them out as super spreaders and ban them from crossing the state borders to do critical and essential work whilst citizens and permanent residents are still allowed to cross.
Many Pacific seasonal workers are here as part of national programs, and the Federal Government needs to step in to provide financial support to workers until new work assignments can begin.
Farmers, employers, and all levels of government also need to work constructively with farm workers and their union to ensure better quality accommodation and workplace health and safety standards are in place and enforced, to help protect these essential farm workers and Australia’s fresh food supply chain.
If temporary border closures are truly necessary, they should be applied consistently. All workers need job guarantees – assurances that their jobs will still be there when border restrictions are lifted.
It is worth noting United Workers Union has not heard of one single case of coronavirus amongst our SWP members.