Griffith research confirms the essential contribution of backpackers and seasonal migrant workers to regional Australia is undervalued.

Backpackers and seasonal migrant workers contribute to the culture, economy and tourism industry in regional communities and provide essential services to the agricultural sector.

Research fellow at the Griffith Centre for Social Cultural Research, Dr Kaya Barry said there was a lack of cultural support available to seasonal migrant workers who lived and worked in regional communities and Australian’s often misunderstood the essential role they played.

“In some regional towns, migrant workers are looked down upon due to a misguided perception they are ‘taking jobs from Australians’ and these attitudes are dividing communities,” said Dr Barry.

“Farmers are still screaming out for workers, and it drives up the cost of labour, and drives up the cost of produce.

Research fellow at the Griffith Centre for Social Cultural Research, Dr Kaya Barry.

“Seasonal migrant workers are essential to healthy economies of regional towns, contributing to the local workforce, local culture and contributing to the tourism industry for both leisure and employment.”

Dr Barry was awarded an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discover Early Career Researcher Award fellowship in 2022 to study the impacts of the pandemic and recovery for regional farming communities.

Studying the overlap of tourism and migration in regional areas for several years, Dr Barry embarked on a pilot project on backpackers in South East Queensland prior to the pandemic.

The new report by authors Dr Kaya Barry, Rafael Azeredo and Ari Balle-Bowness illustrates how regional communities suffered economic and cultural hardship when COVID restrictions forced one of the main labour sources (backpackers), to return to their home countries.

“When COVID struck, limited support was given to backpackers and other migrants despite them being essential to the agricultural workforce and this treatment ultimately damaged Australia’s reputation for the working holiday,” Dr Barry said.

“In September 2022 the National Farmers Federation reported a shortage of at least 172,000 workers across Australia.

“Their absence during COVID provided an opportunity to discover how important seasonal migrant workers and backpackers are to Australia.

A street sign reminds international travelers to keep left.

“Prior to the pandemic, more than 200,000 Working Holiday Maker (WHM) visas were granted every year, making backpackers one of the main labour sources, who pick, pack, prune and plant the nation’s fruit and vegetables.

“The agricultural sector is expected to contribute $82 billion to the Australian economy in 2022-23, and despite claims backpackers are not a long-term solution for a steady agricultural workforce, they were doing the bulk of horticultural work prior to the pandemic.”

Almost 100,000 WHM visas were granted since the easing of restrictions last year however, the latest statistics show barely 60 percent of international agricultural workers have returned to fulfill crucial roles in Australia’s agriculture sector.

Dr Barry explains backpackers are timid in their return to Australia because temporary visa holders aren’t attributed equal rights that consider their contribution to our economy and culture.

There is evidence that some seasonal migrant workers have experienced exploitation and found it difficult seek help due to language barriers and isolation.

Work boots off after a big day picking fresh produce on the farms.

“Policy in Australia should reflect our understanding that migrant workers are integral to the operations of regional towns and backpackers and workers from the Pacific Islands should be provided with adequate support,” Dr Barry said.

“They have limited rights as visa holders, are largely and perhaps inaccurately considered to be unskilled workers and are often ‘long-term temporary migrants’, living for months, sometimes years, in regional communities.

“Some hostel owners are going above and beyond to provide workers with resources and access to essential services, but not all hostel owners are taking these needs into consideration and that’s one opportunity to implement informed policy.

“Backpackers and workers from the Pacific Islands have an integral role to play in Australian culture, our food production, our economy and their experience here affects Australia’s reputation.

“If we are serious about supporting our “Pacific Family”, a phrase often touted by politicians about migration, and serious about growing our backpacker numbers, it’s a matter of urgency that we are informed and begin to address these issues.”

10: Reduced Inequalities
UN Sustainable Development Goals 10: Reduced Inequalities

16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
UN Sustainable Development Goals 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions