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The Melbourne Age TOM HYLAND November 22, 2009

Lake Boga fruit grower Michael Tripodi blames red tape and costs for the failure of a plan to attract seasonal workers from struggling island nations. Photo: Craig Sillitoe

A PLAN to bring Pacific Islanders to work on Australian fruit farms has stalled, as red tape entangles a scheme initially hailed as a ''win-win'' for labour-starved growers and struggling island nations.

Harvesting of this summer's crop is already under way - without Pacific workers, more than a year after the Federal Government launched its seasonal workers scheme to allow islanders to come here for up to seven months.

Industry bodies fear islanders who do arrive now, in the second phase of the three-year pilot scheme, will be too late for this year's harvest. It will be the second harvest in a row to miss out on Pacific labour.

The first group, comprising 56 workers from Tonga and Vanuatu, arrived in February - too late for last summer's harvest in Swan Hill and Griffith.

Frustrated with delays and what they say are onerous Government conditions, some growers are using labour contractors who are known to exploit workers, many of them illegal migrants.

Costs are also deterring some growers from taking part - even though the Government and industry bodies have warned all along that Pacific workers will not be cheap.

After years of lobbying from the horticulture industry, and pressure from Pacific nations, the Government announced in August last year it would give 2500 visas to workers from Kiribati, Tonga, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.

Growers hoped the scheme would save some of the $700 million worth of produce that rots each year for want of pickers, while Pacific nations hoped workers' salaries would boost their economies. So far, neither party's hopes have been met.

The global financial crisis has also meant there is more local labour available, reducing pressure on growers.

But Horticulture Australia Council chief executive Kris Newton said a bigger problem has been bureaucratic controls that deterred growers from using the scheme.

The Government insists Pacific workers are recruited through approved labour hire companies - a condition strongly opposed by the industry, Ms Newton said, because of ''nasty reports of exploited migrants and illegal workers employed by labour contractors''.

Secondly, the industry was frustrated by the lack of control given to regional advisory bodies set up to help run the scheme.

''Almost all of the autonomy and power to make any decisions was removed,'' Ms Newton said. ''The people on the ground … have been reduced to ciphers in the current process.''

While Ms Newton is confident federal officials now recognise the industry's frustrations, others are less optimistic.

A source with inside knowledge of the scheme said it had been marked by ''bureaucratic bullshit and excessive micro-management''.

''It's been a total debacle in Canberra,'' said the source, who asked not to be identified.

The source said the requirement that growers obtain workers though officially approved labour hire companies was a major obstacle to farmers, some of whom wanted to recruit Pacific Islanders direct.

While growers were legally obliged to pay workers about $18 an hour, going through a company pushed the cost to $22 an hour, or more.

This meant growers fell back on dubious contractors, some of which charge as little as $15 an hour - but give workers, many of them illegal migrants, as little as $9.

Denita Wawn of the National Farmers Federation said the first phase of the scheme had been a ''reality check'' for some growers, who had assumed it would be cheaper. But she said the NFF was disappointed in the delay with bringing the second group of workers out.

''This should have been finalised three months ago,'' Mrs Wawn said. ''There have been unnecessary delays and we have been exceptionally disappointed with that.''

While the NFF accepted the need for clear controls, ''the rigidity and the time that it's taken in implementing it, has been unacceptable'', she said.

The scheme is administered by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, headed by Julia Gillard.

Ms Gillard's spokesman said conditions attached to the scheme were designed to ensure seasonal workers were protected by Australian workplace laws.

He denied the second group of Pacific workers was being delayed, saying their arrival was a matter for growers and labour hire firms, and that a group of workers was ready to leave Kiribati once work is available and identified by growers.

He said the Government had stressed Pacific workers would not be a cheap labour option for growers, and would in fact cost more than Australians, because of transport and other costs.

Michael Tripodi, president of the Swan Hill Summer Fruits Association, said red tape and the need use approved labour companies had deterred growers from using the scheme. But cost was a crucial factor.

He pays a contractor $18 an hour for casual labour; under the Pacific scheme he would have to pay more than $22.

''They've priced themselves out of the market,'' he said.

''The costs involved just aren't realistic. It's not fairyland on the land. If we don't watch our pennies, if we're not efficient, we'll go broke. It's as simple as that.''

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