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Australia Seasonal worker boost to offer some relief to WA growers, but is it too late for this year's harvest?

05:35  16 october  2020
05:35  16 october  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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Announcement offers growers some relief . However, Mr Menzel said the news had come in time for growers making critical decision around next year ' s " This gives us a great boost of confidence that we would be able to access those workers that we've had a relationship over many years , particularly

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The West Australian Government has announced its horticultural industry will be able to access more foreign workers to relieve labour shortages, including around 300 Vanuatu workers picking mangoes in the Northern Territory.

Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan said the new measures would allow growers to access the Federal Government's Seasonal Worker Program and Pacific Labour Scheme, subject to strict conditions to protect the health and safety of the WA community.

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Minister MacTiernan said initially the focus would be on recruiting ni-Vanuatu workers that have already quarantined in the Howard Springs facility near Darwin.

"When they are finished doing their tasks in the Northern Territory, mainly picking mangoes, we will welcome them to come into Western Australia," Ms MacTiernan said.

"Of course, our absolute priority is always keeping the people of Western Australia safe but we're confident this program can now be managed properly.

"This will go some way to filling the labour shortage for this season's harvest, but it is not a panacea.

"Our growers will still require thousands of local workers to get the harvest off and will need to demonstrate that they cannot fill their labour requirements locally."

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Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, WA growers employed around 1,000 Seasonal Worker Program workers, with the majority of remaining harvest jobs filled by working holiday makers.

'Wander Out Yonder' campaign falls short

Last month, the State Government launched the Work and Wander Out Yonder campaign and related worker incentives scheme to encourage West Australians to help fill labour gaps across regional WA.

Ms MacTiernan admitted the efforts and programs put in place until now had not been sufficient to solve the worker shortage problem facing the state's fruit and vegetable growers.

She said that only 58 people had submitted a claim for the travel and accommodation assistance on offer to encourage West Australians to wander out yonder and take a job in regional WA.

"Our campaign has drawn real interest from local jobseekers and our priority will remain local workers," Ms MacTiernan said.

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"However, without further Federal Government action to incentivise those on JobSeeker to take up agricultural work, we are implementing further measures to support our growers.

"With backpackers unable to come to Australia due to the Federal Government's international border closures, allowing growers to access the Seasonal Worker Program and Pacific Labour Scheme will help to ensure we can fill critical labour shortages in our primary industries."

It was also revealed the State Government was in discussions with the NT and Federal governments to bring an additional 400 seasonal workers from Vanuatu and Timor Leste into the country, and use the Howard Springs facility as a quarantine base for workers travelling across to WA.

Ms MacTiernan said she was confident some Vanuatu workers working in the Territory would be available to WA as early as the end of October or early November.

She also flagged the possibility of bringing in additional seasonal workers next year should the initiative prove successful.

Under fire for 'slow response'

Shadow agriculture spokesman Steve Thomas welcomed the announcement but slammed the State Government for being "too slow" to act.

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He said the WA agricultural industry still needed around 7,000 workers across the upcoming horticultural and grain harvests.

"We have had two months of great uncertainty in the agriculture sector because this Government would not accept the inevitable," Dr Thomas said.

"Farmers have been worried about where they're going to get their workers from. They have been ploughing some of their crops back in, they have not planned as they would have done previously.

"All of those reflect a lower economy because this Government was too proud to acknowledge the simple reality that we needed these workers in Western Australia."

Dr Thomas called on the Government to work with the Commonwealth to bring workers into WA as soon as possible.

Up in the Kimberley, Ord Valley farmer David Menzel said the new measures to bring in seasonal workers was too late for the majority of horticultural crops in the region like pumpkins and melons, which had mostly been picked.

Mr Menzel, who is also the president of the Shire of Wyndham and East Kimberley, said mango growers who had just started picking in the Kimberley could possibly benefit.

But he said that would be dependent on the mango harvest across the border finishing up with enough time to get workers across to pick and pack in Kununurra over the next couple of weeks.

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Announcement offers growers some relief

However, Mr Menzel said the news had come in time for growers making critical decision around next year's planting schedule.

"It's probably a little bit late for here … but what's done is done," he said.

"I think the more important thing is that the WA Government is finally putting a pathway in place where we may be able to get a workforce into WA, and that's been one of the concerns for such a long time.

"This gives us a great boost of confidence that we would be able to access those workers that we've had a relationship over many years, particularly in the Ord."

Mr Menzel said in recent years, farmers in the Ord Irrigation Scheme had relied heavily on workers from Timor Leste who were more "reliable" and "motivated" than the backpacker workforce.

WA Strawberry Association President Neil Handasyde said the announcement was really good news for growers in the southern part of the state, but came too late for struggling farmers around Perth.

"The majority of the strawberries that are in the market now from the Wanneroo, Bullsbrook, Gingin area, they're short staffed and working incredibly long days to try and keep up," he said.

"So it's not going to help those guys at all, but it certainly will help the October through to March-April areas [like] Pemberton, Mt Barker, Albany, Manjimup."

Mr Handasyde, who grows strawberries in Albany, said the move would not fix labor shortages but it would offer some relief.

"There's more to do, but it's a really good step," he said.

Pleas for assistance 'fell on deaf ears'

The Nationals WA leader Mia Davies said the State Government's response to the labor shortage crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic had been inadequate.

Ms Davies said she had raised the prospect of workforce shortages as early as March with the Agriculture Minister, encouraging the Government to put plans in place to stem the loss of interstate and international workers.

"Pinching a couple of hundred of labourers after the Northern Territory and Federal Government have done the heavy lifting to bring them into the country just doesn't cut it," she said.

"WA families need to realise their higher grocery costs at Christmas are a direct result of the Labor Government sitting on their hands for the last seven months while our primary industries scream out for support to access more workers."

The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development will place a five-person team within the WA Police Force to help manage the new measures that will see NT seasonal workers travel to WA farms in the coming weeks.

The State Government said it would also allow for greater movement of critical agricultural workers from interstate — subject to usual isolation and quarantine requirements.

The Work and Wander Out Yonder campaign will continue to roll out and will ramp up activities in November to encourage university students and school leavers into the industry ahead of the summer holidays.

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