When coronavirus restrictions began, Simfresh – which produces almost 2 million boxes of citrus annually from farms in NSW and Queensland – was “already ahead of the game” in helping its workers stay healthy and happy during the pandemic, operations manager Luke Cini said.
In April 2020, amidst all the social distancing and self-isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, many horticulture businesses around Australia were busily preparing for a picking season that would look a little different from previous years.
Autumn crops were just about ready, and farms were finding creative ways to make sure they and their staff could safely continue to provide fresh produce to Australian supermarkets and grocers.
Simfresh, which grows mainly citrus crops at Gol Gol in New South Wales and Gin Gin in Queensland, already had around 55 Pacific island workers sourced through Australia's labour mobility programs, so when the opportunity to take on more Pacific island workers came along, they jumped.
The business worked with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Pacific Labour Facility to take on several PLS staff who were previously working in the tourism industry, but had been redeployed after COVID-19 travel restrictions began.
‘Everyone will be needing their vitamin C!’
Simfresh operations manager, Luke Cini, said it was clear the citrus season would be starting a little earlier that year.
He anticipated that demand for the fruit would be strong over the coming months, and said the business had looked for new and innovative ways to make sure its workers stayed healthy and happy.
“We figure everyone will be needing their vitamin C this year!” he said at the time.
“All our workers are healthy and ready to go. We’ll probably start picking this week, then we’ll start packing and sending the fruit out straight away.”
When travel and self-isolation restrictions started, Simfresh had already put several new measures in place to help its staff adapt to a different way of working.
“When things really kicked off we were lucky, we were probably a bit ahead of the game,” he said.
“We already had 600 reusable, washable face masks made up by a local who lives near our NSW farm and had offered to do it quite early on.
“The masks are colour-coded, which helps us to manage our social distancing. Smokoes and lunch breaks have been spaced out so there are 3 of each every day, and the coloured masks help the workers know when they are supposed to go on their breaks. People with red masks go at a certain time, while people with blue masks have their smoko later on, and so on.
“We’ve built a new lunch shed that has space heaters, an outdoor area and 10 tables with only four chairs at each table. This will help keep workers warm during the cooler months, and help them keep their distance from each other.”
‘We’ve bought Playstations for every worker household’
Luke said workers also found new ways of keeping themselves occupied outside work hours.
“Some of the workers borrowed my home gymnasium equipment – with my blessing – and are using it every day to work out,” Luke said at the time.
“We’ve also bought Playstations for every worker household. So that’s all doing a pretty good job of keeping people safe at home and occupied while they are not working!”
Simfresh usually supplies around 1.8 million boxes of citrus fruit each year to both the Australian domestic and export markets, and is a major supplier of citrus to Coles. It is expecting to deliver similar quantities of produce to customers this year.