Just a few months ago, Mizamu Mahari could not have imagined he would be living on a farm two hours from Melbourne, gingerly stepping into a saddle on a horse.
“To be honest, it’s not like the city,” he said.
The 28 year-old electrical specialist from Ethiopia is one of six asylum seekers who came from Melbourne in mid-November to help fill the huge demand for agricultural labour.
“I’ve never been outside of the city, so I was afraid for the first time … now, it’s getting better and better and we adapt to this,” Mr Mahari said.
The six asylum seekers come from countries including Ethiopia, Iran, and Bangladesh.
They are just some of the asylum seekers and refugees who are filling agricultural jobs across the country.
But clearing the hurdles to find them jobs and accommodation in Yarck in regional Victoria was not easy.
The mastermind behind this plan was university student Aviva White, who volunteers at the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project (BASP) in Melbourne.
“We noticed a lot of coverage within the media about huge labour shortages in the agriculture industry, that there was lots of fruit to be picked and lots of jobs on farms available,” she said.
BASP helps hundreds of asylum seekers, but often faces challenges when finding them work. The volunteers don’t normally look for jobs in regional areas.
“We had to get a bit of a grasp on the situation there,” Ms White said.
That led to a collaboration with Regional Australians for Refugees (RAR), who heard about jobs going at Koala Cherries in Yarck and had a lead on a place for the men to stay.
“I know myself … I appreciate everything here,” Morteza Darvishpoor, an asylum seeker from Iran, said.
He has been working as a labourer, while training to be a kickboxer in Melbourne.
“I saw when I came here, everything is beautiful … Much like I was thinking about, imagined. Everything [is] good and nice,” Mr Darvishpoor said.
Mayfield Farm has had workers from Koala Cherries stay before, but never asylum seekers.
“These guys have been smiling,” said Nicky Bowe, whose family owns the farm.
“You know, they’re happy to be here … They always say hello and wave to me.”
The farm is about eight kilometres from where the men are working in Yarck, so when they first arrived the volunteers at RAR put out a call for bicycles.
“In two days we had 16 either loaned or donated. So we chose six of the best bikes and we brought them down on a trailer to meet the boys,” Marie Sellstrom from RAR Mansfield said.
RAR not only found the accommodation, it stocked the shed with fresh produce in preparation for the men’s arrival.
“It works so well because they’re happy and the employer is happy and they’re producing a beautiful product,” Ms Sellstrom said.
Challenging year to find workers
This year has been particularly challenging for producers to find workers.
COVID-19 restrictions have caused a collapse in the number of working holiday visa holders — the backpacking workforce crucial to the agricultural industry.
Working holiday visas have fallen from about 140,000 at the end of 2019 to about 50,000 now.
The National Farmers Federation (NFF) estimates there will be a shortage of 26,000 agricultural workers when demand peaks around March.
“A lot of growers are already making their business decisions and planting less or walking away from crops,” Tyson Cattle, executive officer of the NFF’s horticulture council, said.
Quarantine requirements have slowed a program to bring in more than 20,000 workers from Pacific Island nations.
“We were hoping to have 8,000 workers in the country before Christmas. We’re only at 1,500,” Mr Cattle said.
“We just don’t have the capacity to be able to bring in the workers that we need … in such a short period of time.”
Koala Cherries in Yarck is one of Australia’s biggest producers and ships all over the country and to export markets across Asia.
It needs about 400 workers in the fields and 250 in the packing sheds focussed on the intense 10-week harvest period from November to January.
When the company was approached about employing asylum seekers, it did not hesitate.
“It’s been a great initiative because we’ve actually got amazing workers,” said Frances MacIsaac, head of recruitment for Koala Cherries.
They are paid the award wage, which is about $26 an hour.
During harvest the shifts are long, sometimes nine to 10 hours a day, six days a week. The asylum seekers can earn gross pay of more than $1,400 a week.
The men pay $160 a week each for their accommodation, with their first two weeks rent paid in advance by the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project.
Up-front rent is just one of the barriers to overcome to make an initiative like this work.
“Without things like that or without the help from RAR organising bikes and getting food deliveries dropped off for the first couple of weeks, I don’t think it would have been possible,” Ms White said.
Mr Mahari hopes more asylum seekers can get an opportunity like this in the future.
“If sometimes they may be stuck in the city and they may not have some other work or something … they can try another option like the town in the countryside,” he said.
“They may get some more opportunities, and the people here are welcoming.”