Bungling Stalls Plan To Import Fruit Pickers

Bungling stalls plan to import fruit pickers

Mark Metherell
Sydney Morning Herald
January 12, 2009

THE long-awaited trial to recruit guest workers from Pacific islands to pick fruit in areas short of labour has been hit by delays and could now be sunk by the economic downturn.

Six months ago the Government said the first migrant workers would arrive with the onset of the picking season before Christmas.

As part of a trial, 100 workers were to go to Griffith in the Riverina and Swan Hill in Victoria to pick and pack fruit, the first wave in a migrant labour force expected to grow to 2500.

The Government has signed agreements with Kiribati, Tonga and Vanuatu, but the arrival of workers from these countries is still subject to negotiations with labour hire companies and the Federal Government has declined to give a start-up date.

A Government source also cautioned about the effect on the scheme of the economic slowdown, saying the Pacific island workers would be employed only where there was a proven demand due to significant labour shortages.

Employment arrangements and an assessment of the extent of demand for Pacific island workers still needed to be completed, officials said.

A spokeswoman for the Employment and Workplace Relations Minister, Julia Gillard, said the arrival of the workers depended on appropriate administrative arrangements being in place. The Government also required a detailed assessment of the labour hire companies responsible for recruiting the workers to ensure “the highest standards are met”, the spokeswoman said.

But the Opposition's immigration spokeswoman, Sharman Stone, accused the Government of bungling and concealing from the public that it was getting cold feet because of shrinking demand for migrant workers as a result of the economic slump.

Dr Stone said fruit growers had been irked to see hardly any action on the guest workers when so many federal bureaucrats were involved in consultations. On occasion, more bureaucrats than residents had attended meetings, she had been told.

Anna Berry, a Griffith hire firm executive, said she had become impatient over the lack of action.

Ms Berry, who came from Vanuatu 35 years ago, said she knew just how much the guest worker scheme would mean to both her old homeland and her present home town of Griffith.

“We have done everything we could [to get the scheme going] but now everything has stopped,” Ms Berry said.

After being chronically short of workers previously, growers had managed so far. But in Griffith there was a now a need for 400 people to harvest the onion crop.

“We don't know where they are going to come from,” Mrs Berry said.

The project was very important for Pacific nations troubled by high unemployment and idle young people, Ms Berry said.