Banaban Voice

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Football club's call cements arrival of Tongan guest workers
Michael Hartshorn February 20, 2009

LOCAL National Party MPs had lauded their arrival and church, social services, unions and government officials had lined up to ensure their smooth transition.

Alf Fangaloka (orange shirt) leads the Tongan arrivals down Robinvale's main street this week.

But it was a call from the football club that cemented the arrival of 50 Tongan seasonal visa workers in Robinvale this week.

The men, all bilingual, are spearheading the Pacific Seasonal Workers Pilot Scheme in the Victorian border town, nestled beside the Murray River, 450 kilometres north-west of Melbourne.

The three-year pilot was to begin with 50 workers in Robinvale and 50 in Griffith, NSW. The Griffith trial has since been delayed.

But, by the third year, up to 2500 people from Tonga, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati and Vanuatu will be offered visas.

Alf Fangaloka, a second-generation Tongan Australian and director of family-owned company Treeminders, will oversee the men's employment at almond farms managed by Select Group in the Robinvale district.

"After the story appeared in the local newspapers, I got a fair bit of friendly ribbing from people in the town — 'What are you doing to us, Alf? What trouble are you stirring up now?' — but I knew it was really accepted when I got a call from the footy club seeing if any of the boys would like to come along and give another code a try," Mr Fangaloka said.

He was clearly relieved by the positive response after a hectic week of media engagements, training staff and covering details — from opening bank accounts to setting up mobile phones with the international dialling codes for Tonga so the men could keep in regular contact with their families.

The men officially started on the job yesterday. First they had training on harvesters, tractors and other necessary farm machinery.

It is hot, dusty, hard work and requires ongoing training. The peaceful setting of row upon row of green-leafed almond trees is transformed into a cloud of thick red dust each morning and the dust does not settle until sunset.

"I think it was a huge relief for them, and it certainly was for me," Mr Fangaloka said. "It's been a huge investment in energy and money for the company. It's not only about this year, it's a three-year pilot and we are hoping the men will come back in the following years so that they can go straight into work."

Select Harvest has 10,400 hectares of almond trees to be harvested. A further 4800 hectares will mature in the next two seasons.

Mr Fangaloka said there had been repeated attempts to fill the farm positions with Australian workers.

"While some people stay, the majority are not willing to stick out the job," he said.

"We simply cannot find the numbers we require and while the economic downturn will have some effect on the markets, there is work in harvesting and pruning which has to be done to maintain the farm's long-term viability."

He said it would be much cheaper to use Australian employees.

"There are a lot of costs involved," he said. "This is not a cheap-labour option — all the men are paid under Australian awards and have superannuation and other conditions guaranteed."

Mr Fangaloka's sentiments were echoed by the federal member for Mallee, John Forrest, and the state MP for Mildura, Peter Crisp.

Mr Crisp said he had been supportive of the pilot program for a long time.

"We have very fluctuating employment figures and there are times when love or money won't find you workers," he said.

"This is a risk-management tool for the future."

Mr Crisp and Mr Forrest, both Nationals MPs, were at odds this week with Opposition immigration spokeswoman Sharman Stone — the member for Murray — who called for the scheme to be scrapped. She said it had been bungled from the start.

Dr Stone said Australians, particularly those hurt in the economic downturn, should be first in line for jobs.

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