Time to sort out labour shortages

Mechanics of how Pacific Islander Labour scheme is to work, says orchardist

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LABOUR SCHEME: Sophie Kirk, a former Australian Federal Police officer, in Orange, NSW, co-ordinating a team of fruit pickers from the Solomon Islands. Photo by Steve Gosch.

LABOUR SCHEME: Sophie Kirk, a former Australian Federal Police officer, in Orange, NSW, co-ordinating a team of fruit pickers from the Solomon Islands. Photo by Steve Gosch.

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Open borders fundamental to successful recruitment of international workers.

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A prominent Goulburn Valley orchardist has slammed the Victorian government for what appear to be barriers stopping Pacific Islander and seasonal workers travelling to the state.

The Victorian government has said it was considering several options to support Pacific Islander Labour Scheme workers, intending to come to the state.

Those options would be assessed by the Department of Health and Human Services and Chief Health Officer, based on the public health risks for both the workers and regional communities

They would also have to take into account proper systems and processes were in place, if required.

But Shepparton orchardist Peter Hall says it was still unclear as to how the mechanics of the Pacific Islander Labour scheme would work until there was a clear, open-border policy, between the states.

"It looks like NSW is going to open up to Victoria, by November 22 -if that's the case then at least if Pacific Islanders arrive in NSW, they can relocate to Victoria," Mr Hall said.

"That's the first thing that's going to have to happen; we need to have open borders, so workers can translocate to where the work arises.

"But if DHHS, or the Chief Health Officer, are now saying we need to put further regulations around people movement, how hard are they trying to make it work for us?"

He said it seemed "absurd" that Victoria had a major issue with coronavirus but was now holding out, "because we are the gold standard.

"It's preposterous, how we can impose restrictions on other states?"

Looming shortage

A recent report by Ernst & Young predicted horticultural producers would require an additional 26,000 workers to harvest crops this summer.

The EY report, commissioned by peak body Hort Innovation, was the first to put a figure on the potential seasonal worker shortage.

It found Shepparton, north-west Victoria and the NSW Murray region would be hardest hit.

Mr Hall said at the eleventh hour, DHHS appeared to be putting up barriers, which the government should have sorted long ago.

Fruit picking would start in the Goulburn Valley within a fortnight, but it appeared the authorities didn't understand how business worked.

"It's really pathetic actually," he said.

There should not be any barriers to workers coming to Victoria, as long as employers had a COVID-Safe workplace.

'If all the orchards and all the packing sheds have COVID-Safe plans, then what is the problem for DHHS?

"Why would they say there would be an issue there?"

Government assistance

The federal government has hit back, blaming Victoria for holding up Pacific Islander workers travelling to the state.

Federal Agriculture minister David Littleproud joined the state opposition, in saying the government had not acted quickly enough.

He said Victoria was responsible for deciding on its own quarantine protocols.

"I would have thought from bitter experience the Victorian government already understood that the quarantining of people coming from overseas into their state was a responsibility they owned," Mr Littleproud said.

"There are 22,000 pre-vetted Pacific workers that are work-ready under these schemes.

"We will stamp the visas, but Victoria needs to decide on the quarantine protocols."

He said either Victoria was ignorant of the process it signed up to or were stalling because it couldn't get its Chief Health Officer to sign off on a quarantine protocol.

But Victorian Agriculture Minister Jaclyn Symes said the government was working hard with industry, to support them in a range of ways, to adapt and prepare for a safe, and productive, harvest,

"We're developing many options to get workers into these roles," Ms Symes said.

That included training, covering worker accommodation and travel costs, encouraging interstate workers through the National Agricultural Workers Code, running a campaign to encourage jobseeking Victorians into agriculture and working with Culturally and Linguistically Diverse community leaders and education instructions.

The government had also opted into the Pacific Labour Scheme.

"While the Commonwealth's Scheme is welcomed, their job is far from done," Ms Symes said.

"They hold many more levers to facilitate and fund these workers' COVIDSafe entrance into Australia - an expectation I've made clear to Mr Littleproud."

Financial burden

State opposition Agricultural spokesman Peter Walsh said Victoria's horticulture sector was desperately seeking thousands of workers to get fruit off the trees.

Opposition Agriculture spokesman Peter Walsh said the government was refusing to let seasonal workers quarantine in the state, instead of telling them they first had to go to the Northern Territory.

It was out of the question that employers should shoulder the financial burden, with estimated costs of up to $8000 per worker.

"Premier Daniel Andrews and Ms Symes, have had nine months to solve this problem but with harvest on our doorstep they've failed to find a real solution," Mr Walsh said.

"The Federal government is ready and willing to support the states to implement frameworks to get workers into the country and on-farm, what's missing is the government's willingness to fix the problem.

"Our horticulturalists need workers now to ensure the crops are picked - not in a month when the hotel quarantine report is handed down.

He said it appeared the government had no confidence in its quarantine processes, leaving farmers paying the price as fruit was left to rot.

The government of Vanuatu had offered to send up to 2000 workers within two weeks to cover dire workforce pressures on Victorian farms.

"Other Australian states already have programs in place that are safely getting workers onto farms - Victoria should be learning from this success," Mr Walsh said.

Meanwhile, the Tasmanian government says its determined a safe pathway for the Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme, to ensure industry has confidence in a strong workforce.

"Under the agreement, Pacific Island workers, who must be approved by the Federal Government to enter Australia, will undertake two weeks' mandatory hotel quarantine before commencing work on the farm, with appropriate support provided by Tasmania Police and the ADF," Primary Industries minister Guy Barnett said.

"During quarantine the workers will need to have a COVID test on days one, five and 10, and return a negative result prior to leaving the hotel and commencing work."

The Tasmanian Government would cover the cost of quarantining these workers, as further support of this important work, which helped to feed the state and underpins Tasmania's economy.

"We will also provide a one off payment of $250 to each worker through our Pandemic Assistant Grants to assist with personal requirements," Mr Barnett said.

It is anticipated that around 700 Pacific Island seasonal workers will quarantine from November and into the New Year.

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