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Global financial crisis could affect seasonal workers

18 February 2009

When the guest worker scheme was finally approved last year, the Australian economy was travelling along quite well with little unemployment. Now with the global financial crisis beginning to bite, Australia's Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard says that it will have an effect on the guest workers scheme. Ms Gillard says the demand for workers from Vanuatu, Tonga, PNG and Kiribati could decline. Opponents of the scheme argue the jobs should go first to Australia's unemployed.

presenter: Michael Cavanagh
Speakers: Swan Hill Rural City Council's mayor, Greg Cruickshank; Deputy Mayor for the Swan Hill Rural City Council, John Katis; Robinvale resident, Peter Kaffa

Listen: Windows Media

CAVANAGH: The 50 Tongan men will soon be out on farms picking almonds -- initially it was planned they would be working for fruit growers in the region which is approximately a seven hour bus trip north west of Melbourne.

Robinvale has a strong Tongan community -- with claims that it is the third largest in Australia behind Melbourne and Sydney -- there are eight Tongan churches in the town.

The Tongan residents have been working closely with authorities and representatives of the horticultural industry to ensure that it will be a success.

For one of the pickers coming to Robinvale is a little like coming home.

Peter Kaffa lived in the town for 11 years going to primary and secondary school before returning to Tonga.

He plans to send the bulk of his earnings back home...

KAFFA: We come over here to help out with family issues like money problems over in Tonga. I'll probably be sweeping that's like collecting all the almonds into one straight row and yeah that's what we'll be doing other people will be like just picking them up. When you look at the money yeah its really helpful for back home to have that much money because the minimum wage in Tonga for like a teacher wouldn't be like around here.

The change to picking almonds means different accommodation, some now will be staying with relatives in the town -- others at a caravan park which is 30 kilometres from Robinvale.

Deputy Mayor for the Swan Hill Rural City Council John Katis is worried that the late change to accommodation could present difficulties making it hard for the workers to enjoy the support from their compatriots due to them being apart.

While that is largely a local concern -- a number of people are also worried what impact the influx of workers will have on an increasingly tight labour market.

Mr Katis says it could also hurt those already with jobs..

KATIS: People are worried here if it will have any impact on our current jobs. What I mean is that some people have working hours of 12 hours per day because they have committed to buying a car a house and all that sort of thing. If they have those hours cut down to accommodate these new workers who are coming in they are threatened. The big factory that accommodates that feeds of Robinvale labour and I think that some people would have been dependent upon to getting a job there will not now because I believe the contract because its government scheme I think they might, some of those jobs may have been made for those who have come in but the comments made by the contractor they have some labour shortages there but I believe those shortages could have been filled from around Robinvale I don't believe we needed to have outside workers at this stage.

The Conservative Opposition argues that Australia's unemployed should be helped first.

However Agriculture Minister Tony Burke points out that many don't want to be in seasonal work -- Swan Hill Rural City Council's mayor Greg Cruickshank supports this view -- putting him at odds with his deputy John Katis.

CRUICKSHANK :There is a huge labour shortage right throughout the horticultural industry and through our Swan Hill region and that is on-going through the stone fruit season through into the almond picking season and also for the grape season so the jobs are there they are traditionally the jobs that we can't get people to fill and that's why the scheme was brought about in the first place. Jobs are already there but finding the people to actually fill the solution for a long term problem that we've had for labour shortages so this is hopefully it works out to be a long term solution to a problem that we've had for a long time.

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