Seasonal workers from Pacific Island nations have started to arrive in Victoria to help farmers with the harvest.
- Dozens of Pacific Islanders have touched down in Victoria after quarantining in Tasmania
- Some workers have been stuck in Australia since the pandemic began
- The Victorian Nationals Leader says it’s time to start addressing labour shortage issues for next year’s harvest
Fifty workers from the Solomon Islands who arrived in the Sunraysia region this week and will be sent to citrus orchards, grape blocks and vegetable farms for the next six months.
Growers have been battling a dire shortage of pickers due to travel bans.
Helen Bili came to Mildura as part of the seasonal worker program in October 2019 to work for nine months, but when COVID-19 hit her stay was extended.
“In the Solomon Islands, not enough jobs,” she said.
Australia’s High Commissioner for the Solomon Islands, Robert Sisilo, attended a community barbecue in Mildura on Wednesday to welcome the workers after their two weeks in hotel quarantine in Tasmania.
“Here I am, just to check on things and how they are settling in and getting on,” he said.
“It’s certainly a win-win situation for our country, the Solomon Islands, for the workers themselves and their families and for the Australian economy.
Mr Sisilo said some workers had been stopped from returning home because of lockdowns over the past 12 months.
“No-one said it was going to be a perfect system but there have been some challenges, especially for those in the Pacific Labour Scheme,” he said.
“They’ve been here for almost three years now … but they know why they are not going back — because of COVID-19.”
Too little too late?
Victorian Nationals Leader Peter Walsh said the deal with Tasmania to quarantine 1,500 seasonal workers was struck too late and that fruit had gone to waste.
“The stone fruit harvest is finished, the table grape harvest is finished, which is why the minister went to the Yarra Valley to make this announcement, because basically it’s the only place in Victoria left that has fruit to harvest,” he said.
“The almonds and the olives are yet to go, but they rely on more regular workers that come to do that harvesting, because they are driving machinery.”
Mr Walsh said the government had months to act and urged Agriculture Minister Mary Anne Thomas to start planning for labour shortages next year.
Ms Thomas said the full complement of 1,500 seasonal workers were expected to arrive in Victoria by June.
“Backpackers are not coming back any time soon, so it’s important we all work together to get labour to our farms,” she said.