AMID fears that labour shortages will leave crops unharvested due to coronavirus, one North Queensland community is singing the praises of Catholic pickers from East Timor.
More than 100 East Timorese arrived in Bowen and have spent a full season picking capsicums, pumpkins and tomatoes, working hard to earn the respect of the local farmers, as well as the local St Mary’s Church community.
“They are absolutely devoted to our Blessed Lady. It was a lesson to the rest of us,” Bowen parishioner Margaret Price said.
“We had to arrange to have three Masses because they all came on Sunday.
“When they go our church will be empty.”
Mrs Price, who lives on a family farm on the outskirts of Bowen, said it would have been “a sad state of affairs” if COVID restrictions had prevented foreign workers staying during the 2020 picking season.
The large group of pickers from East Timor stayed in a city motel and a backpackers lodge, working alongside other foreign workers from Tonga, Asian countries and Europe.
As well as their skills as pickers and packers, St Mary’s administrator Fr Thomas Madanu said the East Timorese “impressed our community with their faith and pious practices”.
On All Souls’ Day, parishioner Terry Bullemor said some East Timorese pickers were able to attend morning Mass at 8am, and then laid flowers on the graves of religious who died in Bowen.
“After finishing work others were also involved in visits to the cemetery to lay flowers and candles at the grave sites and then returned to the church for a visitation,” he said.
“They finished around 8pm – not bad for a group that has to be up at 4am.”
As a sign of recognition, the St Mary’s parish prepared an offertory process and celebration “with fruits and vegetables, good wine and candles” as the first groups of Timorese packed their bags and prepared to move south to the Brisbane region, and others to Tasmania to pick cherries and strawberries.
“The whole altar was full of offerings,” Fr Madanu said.
While Bowen has counted its blessings with a full harvest of vegetables and with mango season approaching, other Queensland farming communities have issued an SOS call to seasonal workers and volunteers.
Workers are needed to pick summer fruits before they rot, while volunteers, particularly trades people are needed as part of a “farm army” to lend a hand to farming families hard hit by drought, fire and COVID-19 restrictions.
“In many areas, it’s almost impossible to find people with trades that will drive the distances to do work,” the Brisbane-based charity Rural Aid said.
“On the other hand there are tens of thousands of grey nomads, holidaymakers, tradies on holiday, even backpackers who have skills that are willing to help but just don’t know where their help could be best put to use.”
Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has called on Queensland to ease COVID border restrictions to enable Australians and overseas backpackers currently in the country, to cross into Queensland to pick fruit.
Around Cairns, fruit farms need an estimated 15,000 people to pick produce.
Mr Littleproud said the Federal Government was offering Australians a $6000 relocation allowance to move to country areas and work on farms but border restrictions remained an obstacle.
“We are incentivising Australians to get them off the coach and go and have a crack, but we have states that are holding this up. There is a cohort out there (who) really need to get up and have a go at this,” he said.
“Farmers do not have the luxury to sit around and wait for someone to turn up to pick the fruit.”
Mr Littlerproud said he would like to see a labour exchange program between recession-hit Victoria and other states to fill the farm-worker shortage.