While many sectors of the Australian economy have been hampered by the onset of COVID-19 social distancing measures, agricultural businesses continue to operate in order to fulfil essential seasonal tasks.
In central Queensland, citrus grower Craig Pressler has amended his approach to occupational health and safety in order to secure a team of almost 200 staff for harvest.
With such an influx of employees, Mr Pressler has imposed a mandatory self-isolation period for all new employees, many of whom have travelled from interstate and other parts of Queensland.
New arrivals are required to self-isolate in accommodation in a nearby town before they are able to start working on farm.
In addition, he has installed sanitising stations, conducts temperature testing of staff and contract tracing.
“We’re going to have a slower start than normal, but that is what it is,” he said.
“We’re trying to take appropriate action to make sure the safety of everyone – in the fields, in the pack houses, and in the community.”
Mr Pressler explained that he had broken up the workforce into four groups in order to further prevent the spread of any outbreaks.
“[The groups] have four different start times, and their arrival is stage so they don’t congregate together.”
While mandatory self-isolation has been enforced to protect workers and the wider community, one farmer warned that it could put vulnerable workers at risk.
In Far North Queensland, watermelon farmer Shaun Jackson recounted the story of a woman who had travelled a significant journey to work on his watermelon farm, only to be told she would need to complete a mandatory 14-day self quarantine period before being able to start working.
“We had one particular case where we had a poor, young lady who applied to our ads, tried to get here, got her all signed up and everything that was required,” said Mr Jackson, a farmer located 250 kilometres north of Cairns.
“Late that night they changed the rules. She arrived at the destination, at the checkpoint, and was told the rules have changed and was turned away.”
The woman was forced to self-isolate in her own car in the backyard in a nearby town before she was allowed to start working.
Mr Jackson said that it was impossible for staff to self-isolate on his farm as it was against the rules.
“I’m extremely conscious of the safety of our staff and I don’t think there’s a safer place in the country than our farm at the moment.”
The National Farmers’ Federation has developed a COVID-19 Workplace Guide which aims to help agricultural businesses make informed decisions around work health and safety in the era of Corona virus.
The guide also provides information to help business who rely on seasonal labour, and includes a Personal Disclosure Statement form to record information about the health status of employees.