Slim pickings for islander workers

21 Jul, 2009 04:37 AM
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8
 
Treeminders director Alf Fangaloka. Photo: Sunraysia Daily
Treeminders director Alf Fangaloka. Photo: Sunraysia Daily

AUSTRALIA'S seasonal worker scheme, which aimed to bring about 800 Pacific Islanders a year to Australian farms, has attracted 56 workers in its first year.

The pilot project envisioned bringing about 2500 seasonal workers to Australia over three years, but the global financial crisis, and limits on where workers could go, has meant only a fraction of that number have come.

Instead, Australian workers, squeezed by rising unemployment, are turning to fruit picking and other horticultural work, jobs they would have shunned in better economic times.

In all, 50 Tongan workers came to Victoria to work on farms around Robinvale, near Mildura, while six ni-Vanuatu went to Griffith in NSW. Some have since moved to Queensland to pick fruit in Mundubbera, after the collapse of Timbercorp, on whose almond plantations they were working, temporarily left them without work.

The seasonal worker pilot — modelled on a New Zealand scheme — was announced by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd at last year's Pacific Islands Forum in Niue, and its performance will be the subject of intense discussion when this year's forum meets next month in Cairns.

The parliamentary secretary for Pacific Island affairs, Duncan Kerr, said he was disappointed the numbers had been small in the pilot's first year, but the reasons behind the low take-up were understood on both sides of the scheme.

The economic downturn meant more Australians were willing to take up jobs picking fruit at harvest-time and the shortage of workers, which had plagued the horticulture industry for more than a decade, had evaporated.

Mr Kerr said it was important that Pacific Islanders were not taking jobs Australians were willing to perform, and that no seasonal workers were brought to Australia and then left without work.

He said the pilot, which will run its full three years, could be extended to other parts of the country. "Our determination is to proceed with the scheme as a pilot and to make it work."

Horticulture Australia Council chief executive Kris Newton said for the workers who had come to Australia, the scheme had been a success. The Timbercorp collapse aside, the workers have stayed in full employment, and they have sent home more money than they had expected.

Ms Newton said the demand for workers would return as the global economy improved, and she welcomed the possibility of the scheme being expanded to include other parts of Australia. "We were always disappointed that the Government seemed to be fixated on restricting the pilot to two or three regions. One of the good things that this has meant is that they're now prepared to consider widening the pilot."

Alf Fangaloka, whose Tree Minders company supplies workers to farms in the Robinvale area, said the 50 Tongans he had brought out had fitted in easily to the community and had been motivated, reliable employees.

"It has been hugely beneficial for their families and communities back in Tonga," he said. "One of the guys put a roof on his house, another bloke connected electricity to his property for the first time. They've worked hard, and they've made good money."

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READER COMMENTS

tigerdicky
21/07/2009 6:59:53 AM

Unbelievable! Surley with the current unemployment figures, we could find some Aussies workers to fill these jobs!
The orchardist
22/07/2009 11:15:47 AM

Tigerdicky - you would think so, but every year we struggle to find harvest staff. If it wasn't for backpackers, we would be out of business.
tigerdicky
22/07/2009 2:13:50 PM

Well, we should force these Aussie bludgers to work!
Andrew Phillips
22/07/2009 5:22:38 PM

Governments should be making these sectors more attractive for local workers to gain employment in. By reducing or offering tax free employment in these areas, we could get students in their gap years, travellers and local unemployed to take up such work. Show me a uni student who would knock back the opportunity to see Australia and earn tax-free money in order to save for their education expenses? Yes, there are some bludgers in our country, but most people desire to be gainfully employed and have the opportunity to earn as fair wage - all it takes is some intestinal fortitude on the part of our pollies to introduce such a scheme as advocated by the Australian Protectionist Party and we wouldn't see such an acute labour shortage in our regional areas.
The orchardist
23/07/2009 7:04:33 AM

Tigerdicky and Andrew. I hear what you are saying but I don't want anyone on my place who is forced to work. The amount of people who turn up, work a day then quit, so that they can put their dole form in is disgusting. The backpackers turn up, work hard, with no governemnt incentives, get their $ and are gone. Sometimes we see them the following year. From my point of view - if there is a workforce out their who is keen to work and didn't need persuading or forcing to do so then they are the people we want. Be it local, traveller, island worker scheme or back packer. For the record, we are not in the middle of no where and are close to beaches, tourist attractions, major city and large towns. I guess, hence the backpackers.
tigerdicky
23/07/2009 11:02:10 AM

Forced to Work! What do you think the whip was invented for - gentle persuasion!
Qlander
23/07/2009 12:29:30 PM

A whole generation of Australians has been led to believe that any work involving physical activity is beneath their dignity. And that is why the average tradesman now earns more than branch bank managers. Don't worry about sending your kids to uni (India is full of university graduates) - get them into a trade.
Andrew Phillips
25/07/2009 6:34:00 PM

Orchardist, the issue is not one of forcing people to work. The idea is to make the sector more appealing, more financially rewarding. Let's face it, it is no walk in the park, it's often bloody hard yakka and people should be able to keep as much of the money they earn for slogging it out as they can. In regards to people turning up, working for a day then quitting - clearly there is a problem with the Nanny State wet nursing the bone idle of our society and this is another issue needing to be addressed by the equally bone idle on our parliamentary benches (apologies to the very few pollies worth their weight - they know who they are). Why are governments so reticent to tackle the bludgers? How many votes do they think they will lose by encouraging people to be responsible and have some self respect?

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