Pacific workers alleviate Australia's ag labor crisis

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Pacific workers alleviate Australia's ag labor crisis

With Australian workers choosing to pursue the higher paying jobs offered by the lucrative mining and construction giants, regional fruit farmers are being forced to source their seasonal pickers from neighboring countries.

The issue many fruit farmers are facing is not a lack of work, but a lack of workers, with the majority of local businesses simply unable to compete with the enormous wages being offered by both mining and gas companies.

Queensland fruit growers rely heavily on an influx of seasonal backpackers to pick their fruit, yet with the Australian dollar at an all time high this resource is fast running dry.

In an effort to ease the pressure on regional farmers, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) has introduced the Pacific Seasonal Workers Pilot Scheme (PSWPS).

According to DEEWR:

"Pacific seasonal workers are recruited from Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Tonga or Vanuatu to work with horticultural enterprises in Australia who cannot find enough local labour to meet their seasonal harvest needs."

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has also announced last year that Nauru, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu were invited to join the scheme.

"This will provide an important economic boost to communities in our Pacific neighbourhood and offer Australian producers an avenue to source workers, where seasonal demands outstrip the local supply of labour," she said.

"In Australia, the pilot scheme is delivering productivity gains for the horticulture industry, particularly in regional areas where access to a reliable labour supply has been a longstanding challenge."

Gillard believes that scheme is beneficial not only to the Australian employees, but also the workers who remit money back home, which in turn benefits their families and wider communities.

Joy Jensen, Mayor of the North Burnett Regional Council expressed her enthusisam about being involved in the project.

"With the North Burnett being a major citrus producing region with such a diverse agricultural industry, it was an obvious choice to be involved in such a scheme, which is a very progressive approach to labour supply problems," she said.

Jensen said she was proud that the North Burnett could take part in a project with multiple benefits to both their local communities, and those of the workers.

"The workers from these eight Pacific countries are from less fortunate backgrounds than most Australians and do not have the same employment opportunities.

"So it is very gratifying to think that we are able to help them at a very local level to improve their standard of living in their villages."

Despite the benefits of the scheme to both the workers and the employees, due to the seasonal nature of arrangement there were obvious concerns as to the effect the project would have on the host communities.

In an effort to ensure the workers integrated successfully into the local area, the North Burnett Regional Council has employed a Social Cohesion Officer, who is required to ensure that there is understanding of the pilot as well as improved understanding and acceptance of people from diverse backgrounds within the community.

The Social Cohesion Project, which started in April has funded various activities and events in order to make the workers feel at home in their new community.

"This is an excellent example of community working together to upgrade and improve facilities for everyone to use and will ensure that the Pacific Seasonal Workers have a continued linkage and legacy with the Mundubbera community," said Jensen.

Ironbark Citrus and Grape chief executive Sue Jenkin, whose business is based in Mundubberra has employed about 75 people from Tonga and Papua New Guinea (PNG) since she first joined the pilot in April 2010.

Ironbark Citrus and Grapes joined the scheme mainly due to a difficulty in getting workers, particularly around harvest time.

"Previously, we were about 90% reliant on backpackers to meet our harvest labour needs," she said.

"Traditionally, backpackers do not stay for the whole season.  They also do not return for subsequent seasons, and cannot return after two years."

Jenkin currently has twelve workers from (PNG) who are still at this time learning the skills, although she believes their attitude is "excellent".

She admits however there were reservations about the idea to begin with.

"I had no idea whether the scheme would work, but thought it was worth a try, as the benefits of a reliable, trained returning workforce would far outweigh the risk of it not working.

"I thought if it all went pear-shaped, then I would just regard it as a donation to help people who didn’t have the opportunities we have."

She believes the initial costs incurred by the program are more than compensated once you have a returning workforce.

"Sue Jenkin is a reflection of the support that the scheme has received from the horticulture industry, yet the workers themselves are also grateful for the opportunity to work abroad."

Pita K from Tonga began working in Australia in 2009, harvesting almonds in Victoria.

According to DEEWR, "Pita was invited back to work in Australia in 2010 because of his motivation and reliability."

Pita’s hard work reflects his appreciation for the opportunity, with the money he has earned assisting to put his younger siblings through school.

"Pacific workers are probably harder workers than most because they don’t have a lot of opportunities back in the islands, so I think they will work harder to keep this opportunity alive," he said.

The pilot terminates in June this year, with hopes that the support from both regional communities and the horticulture industry as a whole will see this project develop into a more permanent scheme.

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