Opposition blasts Andrews for prioritising tennis players over farm workers

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The Victorian Opposition Leader has criticised Premier Daniel Andrews for allowing Australian Open players from COVID-19 hotspots to quarantine in the state while blocking overseas fruit pickers from doing crucial work.

The Federal Government has approved more than 20,000 Pacific Island workers to harvest fruit this season, but only a small number will be allowed into Victoria.

New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania and the Northern Territory are quarantining workers on farms, but Mr Andrews has not followed suit, attributing his decision to a lack of access to remote locations.

There are fears the approach will devastate the $8.5 billion industry and result in a food shortage and higher prices for consumers.

“Growers are having a great season, but the only issue is finding workers to pick the fruit,” Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien said.

“If you can make arrangements for Australian Open tennis players to quarantine, why can’t you do it for seasonal fruit workers who are willing to pick the fruit, harvest crops and create jobs for the community?”

A group of people stand talking in an orchard.A group of people stand talking in an orchard.
Victorian Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien talks to fruit growers in Ardmona.(ABC News: Rhiannon Tuffield)

Grower fears rot

Growers in Victoria have destroyed thousands of dollars’ worth of unharvested produce and the industry fears further crippling losses.

Victorian orchardist Mitch McNabb predicts his fruit will rot on the trees.

“Our industry has been very courteous towards the Government about this issue and if there’s no resolution I think growers are going to get very upset,” he said.

Mr McNabb’s stone fruit operation will need another 60 workers when harvest ramps up in a few weeks, but he is not confident the positions will be filled.

He said the campaign to draw local workers to pick fruit had done little to fill the gap.

About 26,000 workers are needed, but only 355 unemployed Australians have signed on so far.

“Australian workers haven’t filled those positions for quite a few years and to think they’ll magically change their ideology is a bit silly,” he said.

A smiling man in a bright blue shirt and cap standing in an orchard.A smiling man in a bright blue shirt and cap standing in an orchard.
Orchardist Mitch McNabb is worried his fruit will rot on the trees.(ABC Shepparton: Rhiannon Tuffield)

Mr O’Brien said the window for overseas workers has closed for some growers, but the Government still had a few weeks to change its approach.

“Coming out of COVID and a recession, we need to back our businesses,” he said.

“We need to back our farmers and the Government needs to act now to get these seasonal workers in.”