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."