Harvest labour in limbo

Harvest labour in limbo

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Growers have been left high and dry to get hundreds of international skilled farm workers into the country after a plan to quarantine them at a facility in the Northern Territory was abandoned by the WA State Government. Photo by Jackie Grylls, Bulyee.

Growers have been left high and dry to get hundreds of international skilled farm workers into the country after a plan to quarantine them at a facility in the Northern Territory was abandoned by the WA State Government. Photo by Jackie Grylls, Bulyee.

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"This whole ordeal has been a failure of political leadership right across the country," WAFarmers grains section president Mr Fels said.

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FARMERS in Western Australia have been 'abandoned' by State and Federal political leaders after the dumping of a plan to lure hundreds of skilled international harvest workers into the country and quarantine them at a facility in the Northern Territory.

Discussions between the WA and Northern Territory governments were held last month on using Bladin Village, located 50 kilometres from Darwin and able to accommodate up to 750 people, as a potential quarantine option.

However at the beginning of the month, Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan announced the plan would not be going ahead as the cost of getting the facility operational would be too high.

"We've sought quotes from private providers to stand up the facility for two planeloads of workers, which have come in very high," Ms MacTiernan said.

"We have to be realistic and say it looks increasingly unlikely that we could pull this off without leadership from the Commonwealth.

"To make a quarantine facility viable requires economies of scale, which means we need the Commonwealth to take ownership of a facility that could deliver for the entire country."

It's a move that could see the industry lose between $300 million and $500m, according to The WA Nationals, and one that WAFarmers grain section president Mic Fels said was reflective of the lack of interest in the agricultural sector from both levels of government.

"This whole ordeal has been a failure of political leadership right across the country," Mr Fels said.

"It's so disappointing that our political leaders can't see beyond the city limits as it suits them to be inactive and blissfully ignorant of our critical needs.

"It's a real problem for our industry and for the Australian economy going forward that we've been abandoned and effectively left to our own devices."

While the State government passed the responsibility for standing up the facility in time for harvest to the Federal government, the WA Liberal Party's Agricultural Region MP Steve Martin said the WA Labor government had not shown the agricultural sector anywhere near the respect that it deserves.

"There was an offer from the Federal government for Bladin Village in the Northern Territory to be made available and all the State government needed to do was spend a bit of money from the record $5 billion surplus that they're about to announce to get it done," Mr Martin said.

"It wasn't an extraordinary task and if it was about money, then they're sitting on a huge cash surplus from various royalty streams and they should have spent a bit of that on a sector that's about to produce billions of dollars in export income for the State."

While various political parties around the country play the blame game, farmers in WA are becoming increasingly worried about having no choice but to have people operate machines that they're not qualified to handle.

Mr Fels said it was going to mean a lot of pressure and a lot of challenges during what was already going to be a stressful harvest.

"We value safety so highly, but we're faced with an impossible situation where no one would suggest we shouldn't operate the machines because we can't find experienced operators, so there is only one alternative left and that's to put inexperienced people on them," Mr Fels said.

"There's also the issue of children and elderly people operating these machines, which is definitely going to happen, and for people that can't even get inexperienced or inappropriate people on these machines, then fatigue management is going to go out the window.

"You have to get the crop off and people are going to be working some crazy hours to get that done, so when the fatigue kicks in you're once again looking at the risk of injury or death."

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