International backpackers on working holiday and student visas are heading home, and there is no chance of them being replaced due to Australia’s closed borders.

Key points:

  • Worker shortages are being caused by backpackers leaving Australia for home and no hope of replacement
  • The country’s largest meat co-operative hopes locals will take vacant jobs
  • International workers who also study in Australia are grateful for the flexibility the jobs offer

While the popular picture is of backpackers toiling in the fields, agricultural labour shortages extend far beyond the farm gate.

Australia’s largest meat co-operative, the Northern Co-operative Meat Company, is located in northern New South Wales and has lost up to 50 workers.

The company’s chief executive officer Simon Stahl said the processor was struggling to replace them.

Simon Stahl says that backpackers make up 10 per cent of his company’s workforce.(Supplied: Northern Co-operative Meat Company)

“A lot of them were Korean, there’s a few from Europe, but predominantly Asian countries including Nepal,” he said.

“We’ve had up to 80 backpackers across our business in various roles and that’s been really good for us.”

Foreign workers represent nearly 10 per cent of its workforce, employed across its Casino and Booyong plants where beef cattle and pigs are processed.

“They fill a very flexible role because they’re travelling. They like to have a little bit of time off, some of them don’t want to work that 38 hours a week,” he said.

But diminished numbers means slower processing speeds resulting in increased costs, and some products will go to render instead of being sold at a higher value.

With the unemployment rate in the Richmond Valley doubling over the last year, Simon Stahl said they hoped to attract locals to fill the vacancies.

“There’s been a lot of job losses, so I think there are opportunities to help both our company and, of course, help people out there,” he said.

Nepalese staff embrace flexible meat work

Sagar Pahari and Ajay Thakali from Nepal are on post-study work visas after completing their Master of Forest Science at Southern Cross University in Lismore.

They worked part-time at the Casino plant for two years while studying and are grateful for the flexibility the job offers.

“We are very happy because there’s no amount of pressure. That’s the big thing because I feel very happy in what I’m doing here,” Mr Thakali said.

Sagar and Ajay from Nepal are on post-study work visas and employed by the Northern Co-operative Meat Company.(ABC Rural: Kim Honan)

Mr Pahari initially found working with beef a challenge due to his Hinduism prohibiting its consumption.

Both are working in roles “cleaning guts and intestines” technically known in the industry as paunch and runners.

“There are many different jobs. Some need specific training and some just need the general training,” Mr Pahari said.

Mr Thakali is looking forward to returning to Nepal to get married next year.

“My fiancée lives in UK and she’s also waiting to go to Nepal and we can get married,” he said.

“We haven’t met each other yet, so I’m very excited and desperately awaiting for the travel.”

Blueberry farms lose backpackers

After a challenging 2019, this year’s crop is looking good for blueberry growers in the Northern Rivers, but labour could be an issue.

Natalie Bell grows blueberries and raspberries on her farm at Lindendale in northern NSW.(ABC Rural: Kim Honan)

Natalie Bell from Mountain Blue Orchards (MBO) and Tallogum Berries is excited about the premium fruit being harvested.

“We don’t have drought like we had last year, we don’t have any bushfires raging against our farms. It’s looking really good for our farms this year,” she said.

But with backpackers leaving, MBO is looking to fill 100 jobs at its Tabulam farm to help harvest its estimated 1,000-tonne crop.

“People who were here on their second year visa, they’ve done their time and they’re not allowed to travel Australia at the moment because a lot of the borders are shut. They’re not able to have their backpacker dream,” Ms Bell said.

“But I think we’ll get our crop off and the people that are here, the Pacific Islanders are still here, they’re still working really hard.

The family-owned MBO is also hopeful that locals will join its workforce as the peak of it season approaches.

Freshly picked blueberries from Tallogum Berries.(ABC Rural: Kim Honan)

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