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Backpacker abuse and food shortages in Europe: COVID-19s impact on farming

Source: Dateline

Dateline investigates how COVID-19 is disrupting food production in Australia, the UK, and Germany.

Watch Pandemic Farming: Apples and Oranges on SBS OnDemand

The closure of borders in the face of COVID-19 has forced foreign workers to return home or scramble for work, impacting the food supply chain across the globe.

Fruit and vegetable farms in Australia rely on cheap foreign labour to harvest their crops. As infections spread across the country, backpackers became national news.

Ben, 21, from England, is one of the backpackers who found himself competing with locals for essential farm work at an apple orchard in Orange, NSW. He first camped on a farm where he was working but was asked to leave as the pandemic hit.

“The first day we arrived we felt like we'd just walked into some really wrong place because someone said to us ‘f-ing backpackers’,” he said.

In Australia, there were some 118,000 working-holiday visa holders who aren’t able to access emergency government funds available to citizens who found themselves jobless after restaurants, cafes and pubs shut.

Tim Priest, an employment contractor in Orange, found himself inundated with backpackers looking for farm work when the pandemic hit.

“Before coronavirus, we were struggling to get enough pickers and then as soon as the coronavirus hit, I could have been putting on maybe 300 people a day if I had the work for them.”

“And then there were quite a few farmers who pretty much told us they only want local people.”

European supply chains taking a hit

In Europe, restrictions on movement have meant farm workers are in short supply and food is at risk of rotting in the fields.

In Germany alone, fresh food prices were up nearly 10 percent in April compared with a year earlier as farmers battle to keep up with the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Restrictions on movement across Europe have meant vital farm workers, often from eastern Europe, are in short supply and food is at risk of rotting in the fields.

But in the lead up to the busiest time of year for asparagus and strawberry picking in Germany, Jan Imholze was one of the farmers who decided to charter a plane for Romanian workers at huge personal cost as the government decided to open its borders to labourers.

“Buses couldn't cross the Hungarian or Austrian borders,” he said.

“It's a very hard job, it is very physically demanding, and for the Germans the motivation isn't the same as the Romanians, and the motivation is money.”

As the UK enters peak picking season, growers of crops from strawberries to asparagus have been struggling as travel restrictions imposed to slow the COVID-19’s spread are blocking vital labourers.

This year, the National Farmers Union says 70 to 80 thousand workers are needed to harvest the country’s crops to fill the gaps left by European workers.

Asparagus farmer Bruce Kerr is one of the many British farmers putting out social media calls to give locals a go to help harvest his crop.

“It all came about with a tweet that we put out on Twitter asking for people to help,” he said.

“And within a matter of hours, well, probably minutes, we had a huge response to that. You know we thought we might get 20 or 30 responses and we ended up with over 300, um, in that initial week.”

Jason is a local chef and father of three who lost his job due to the pandemic - and has taken up picking on Bruce’s asparagus farm to pay the bills.

“I never thought I'd ever be in the field gathering this lovely crop. Never. But I'm very thankful for it.”