Backpackers and holiday workers are not arriving because of COVID, but this demographic makes up a large proportion of workers who pick our grapes and service our bars and restaurants.
Border closures and restricted flights in place to mitigate the global pandemic have resulted in Australian international visitor numbers plummeting.
Australia imposed border restrictions to international travellers from 20 March. Tourism Research Australia reported in the year ending August 2020, total international arrivals reached 3,030 visitors, a decrease of 99.6 per cent relative from the previous year.
Working holidaymakers entering the country have almost halved from 140,000 in March to 76,000 in August.
As a result, staff shortages are a problem for the hospitality and wine sectors this holiday and vintage season as on-premise scrambles to find staff and wineries struggle to find workers to pick grapes and service cellar doors.
While Australia enters a relatively COVID-normal summer trading period, dining out and domestic tourism is ramping up. The coming months could see establishments forced to close from lack of staff and wineries to compromise quality through machine harvesting.
In the case of hospitality operators, it is sometimes about getting your existing staff back in the country as Michael Madrusan, owner and founder of Made in the Shade operators of Melbourne’s award-winning The Everleigh and Bar Margeaux, is currently experiencing.
“People in hospitality have lost faith,” Madrusan says.
“They’ve moved on or been moved on by lack of support during the lockdown. They’ve gone home and can’t get back in. We sponsor Bar Margaux’s head chef, yet he has been denied entry back into the country three times now. He actually can’t come back to work.”
It’s also a particular conundrum for the hospitality industry in New South Wales in light of the state government’s “Out and About” vouchers encouraging adult residents to spend up on the struggling hospitality, tourism and entertainment sectors. It’s a complex system that boosts customer numbers at one end when there is an issue servicing them at the other.
The National Farmer’s Federation (NFF) along with Backpacker Youth Tourism Advisory Panel is together putting out a call for the government to restart the Working Holiday Maker Program.
A report from accountancy firm Ernst & Young commissioned by industry group Hort Innovation advised Australia is on track to suffer a shortage of 26,000 workers to harvest crops including vintages this summer.
The NFF argues we should allow workers into the country under a COVID-safe plan from low infection rate countries.
Bruce Tyrrell of Tyrrell’s Wines in the Hunter Valley is tilting the problem on its head and turning to the local community. He said they have half the number of workers secured to harvest the 2021 vintage but they also have a youth unemployment problem.
“We have 30 odd per cent youth unemployment here,” advised Bruce Tyrrell. “It has happened once before, and we went to the local press, and the response melted the switchboard. I am confident we will be OK.”
“If not, then the contingency plan is to machine harvest. We don’t want to machine harvest Vat 1 for example, but if it is a choice between machine harvest and not picking then we machine harvest.”
Tyrrell encourages all local young people who are at university or out of work who want to make some money and memories to get a vintage job.
“It is hard work, but it is great fun, and the perk is there is lots of good wine to drink.”
Chairman of Wine Victoria, Angie Bradbury says the staff issue is raising its ugly head as a problem across Victorian wineries too, significantly for cellar doors and restaurants where she says finding staff is ‘virtually impossible.’
“A lot of the work being done at the moment is to address this seasonal worker situation, but I am not unhappy with the lines of communication between local government and the agricultural sector,” Bradbury said.
She agrees there is a creeping worker shortage looming for vintage.
“We will be jumping through hoops at vintage because many of the countries where we source experienced staff are going through the second wave.”
Mitchell Taylor at Taylors Wines is also feeling the international brain drain for vintage when he usually employs experienced international winemakers.
“This year unfortunately, we will not be able to have any of that international experience,” Taylor said.
However, he is more concerned about the recent COVID outbreak in South Australia and today’s lockdown announcement.
“We hope we get classified as an essential service. We don’t want our winery and vineyard workers worried about whether or not they are coming to work tomorrow nor do we want the interruption to the supply chain at such as busy time.
“It’s been one hell of a year with the drought, bushfires, trade tensions and now COVID,” Taylor says.