Jonathan Moss says his 17 farm workers from Timor-Leste are like “family” and they “couldn’t do this job without them”.
- Under the Seasonal Worker Program low-skilled foreign workers can fill jobs in agriculture
- Since the COVID-19 crisis began, Australia has struggled to find enough foreign workers to help harvest crops
- One employment agency says it can supply workers but needs support from the Australian government
The group has worked at the Mossmont Nurseries in Griffith every year for the past five to earn money to send home to their families.
In Timor-Leste, getting a farm job in Australia is like winning the lottery.
“In one day [at home], I get $10. In Australia, I work 7:30am to 4 o’clock [and] I earn $200,” Calastino Dalman said.
Since the COVID crisis began, Australia has struggled to find enough foreign workers to help harvest crops, with estimates the shortfall is as high as 25,000 workers.
Under the federal government’s Seasonal Worker Program, low-skilled workers from Timor-Leste and nine Pacific countries can fill jobs in agriculture when there aren’t enough Australians to meet seasonal demand.
Another main objective is to help the economic development of the participating countries.
Unskilled when they arrived five years ago, Mossmont Nurseries’ Timorese workers are now highly skilled.
“They have the ability to virtually run this company without needing steady supervision from myself. The Seasonal Worker Program is a brilliant program and I hope it increases forever on,” Mr Moss said.
The stone fruit, citrus and almond nursery will need up to 60 extra workers in spring.
Given the acute shortage of farm labour, Mr Moss does not know where he’ll get them, but International Mobility Services, an Australian-owned labour company based in Dili, says it can supply them all.
“We have over a thousand candidates that have been pre-screened, initial training done, English language testing done, they are ready to go,” IMS chief executive Marcia Kelly said.
Seventy per cent of the men and women vetted by IMS have had their first COVID-19 vaccination. Only those who are double vaccinated and have tested negative to COVID-19 will be proposed for jobs in Australia.
Ms Kelly has asked officials what else it needs to do for workers to be cleared to work in Australia, including quarantining in Timor-Leste or on-farm in Australia, but claimed no suggestions have been forthcoming.
Ms Kelly said the lack of useful feedback from Australian government departments was frustrating.
“If we are provided with exactly what’s required to mitigate the risk to an acceptable level, we will do it in order to get the employees in or the candidates and employees in,” she said.
“It’s fantastic they’re talking about new quarantine facilities being built, but that doesn’t help right now when farmers are desperate for workers right now. We need quick decisions and quick solutions.”
Action from government
Federal Agricultural Minister David Littleproud said it is up to individual states to clear the way for the workers from Timor-Leste, not the federal government.
“There’s been opportunities for the states to take up quarantine opportunities in addition to the caps that they’ve set, from international health companies that will do the quarantining for them from Pacific nations where the COVID threat isn’t as great, and do it responsibly and then put those workers out into the agricultural sector but no state’s taken that up,” Mr Littleproud said.
“This is where the state agriculture ministers really needed to get in the room with their Premier and their Chief Health Officer and explain to them the importance of having a different system for agriculture in regional Australia.”
The states disagree, claiming immigration and purpose-built facilities are the responsibility of the federal government.
Mr Moss needs a solution soon or he’ll have to knock back contracts to supply trees to Australian stone fruit, almond and citrus growers.
“It would make a massive difference to get the 700 people that IMS [is] speaking of to fulfil the massive labour shortages, not just with my company, but many other companies based in Griffith, all around Australia,” he said.
Friends and family of the Mossmont workers eager to work on Australian farms cannot understand why they cannot come if they are vaccinated and COVID-free.
“A lot of people are now available in the system to come to Australia … and they are frustrated because they cannot get into Australia,” Martinho Binto said.
“We came to Australia and live here and [even though] no East Timorese people [are] here, we feel happy, and we stay in Griffith.”
On Sundays, the workers attend church at the Sacred Heart Parish.
The congregation’s welcomed the Timorese to town and would be happy to see more.
“They bring a beautiful depth of faith, they bring a great culture of hard work and are very community-minded, just bubbling with enthusiasm,” said Reverend Andrew Grace.
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