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Rowan Callick, Asia-Pacific Editor From: The Australian March 02, 2... FRUIT grower Michael Tripodi is still struggling to find the scores of reliable workers needed to help his family harvest its crops, despite a government vow to bring in Pacific islanders. Kevin Rudd launched the Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme 18 months ago with the intention of helping farmers such as Tripodi, as well as struggling Pacific families and economies.Rudd said 2500 visas would be available to workers from Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Vanuatu over the three years of the scheme. To date a total of 137 islanders have been brought to Australia, about 10 per cent of what might have been expected halfway through the scheme. Just 31 are present during the peak fruit picking season, 20 from Tonga and 11 from Kiribati, all working on the almond harvest in Victoria's Sunraysia district. Tripodi was involved at the start of the pilot project to bring in Pacific island workers to help pick, pack and prune crops in Australia's horticulture heartlands.
"I was meant to get some workers," says Tripodi, who growspeaches, plums, apricots and nectarines in Victoria's Swan Hill region on the Murray River. He usually needs about 60 people for the picking season, which is now finishing, and about 20 for pruning, which starts six weeks later. He is disappointed with the way the scheme has been managed so far. Immigration Minister Chris Evans said when the pilot was launched: "The Rudd government has responded to calls for assistance from the Australian horticulture industry, which says up to $700 million in fresh produce is left to rot because of a lack of reliable workers.
"Pacific workers and their communities also stand to benefit from employment experience, remittances, and training gained as part of the scheme."
It was only last week that PNG learned from Foreign Minister Sam Abal that Canberra had approved 650 fruit pickers, which prompted the establishment of a special taskforce with provincial co-ordinators to recruit from all 22 PNG provinces.
But it is unlikely any Papua New Guineans will be coming to Australia under the scheme until next year at the earliest. The other three Pacific countries have also been sending workers in substantial numbers to New Zealand.
Tripodi, whose wife, son -- now at university -- and daughter are the only core staff he can count on, has not received any Pacific workers. Instead, he is battling the Immigration Department in his attempt to sponsor new visas for two Chinese Malaysian workers who have already proved their aptitude and work ethic over two years, and have obtained relevant certificates. "I keep coming up against a brick wall," he says.
The latest hitch is that the fruit industry is not registered as a specialist field of work for immigration purposes. "Being a farmer can be very cruel and frustrating sometimes," Tripodi says.
One of the problems with the Pacific scheme, he says, is that "there are too many people with their fingers in the pie all the way. You have to get through the red tape and then pay 10 per cent or more" to the labour hire firms given responsibility for bringing the workers from the islands.
"They've blown themselves out of the water with pricing, for a start. And we can't pass the cost on to the consumers." This is because international competition is so tough and Tripodi would risk losing his Asian export markets in Hong Kong, Singapore and China.
He employs a few backpackers from various Western countries, "but it's same-old, same-old with them". Some work, others don't, and they never come back for a second season.
"In New Zealand the growers employ the Pacific workers directly," he says.
Well might he look with envy across the Tasman. It was following the success of a similar program in New Zealand that Canberra introduced its pilot scheme.
Jerf van Beek, a Dutch backpacker turned contractor turned orchardist who is now New Zealand's national seasonal work co-ordinator for horticulture and viticulture, says there will be about 5000 Pacific islanders working there during this picking season, some back for their fourth year.
And these are numbers dampened by New Zealand's recession. "We always knew the resulting growing unemployment would pressure the scheme," he says. As more local workers have taken jobs in horticulture, the number of Pacific workers has been reduced in some regions, especially as the industry is focused mostly near
urban centres, unlike Australia.
The World Bank has asked van Beek for his advice on the Australian pilot scheme, which the bank had urged the Rudd government to develop.
Van Beek says his answer was: "You need to revisit the whole scheme from the ground up, to look at what's not happening. The main reason [for the failure] is that industry hasn't been involved in the decision making, it's a real pity.
"Our scheme is good for the New Zealand government, for industry and for the Pacific. In your case, it's not working for any of the three."
Horticulture Australia Council chief executive Kris Newton says the scheme is in strife "because of a complex set of circumstances that nobody, least of all the industry, had predicted".
"The global recession has had a large impact, not on demand for labour or a willingness to pay, or on the productive capacity of orchards or farms, but on the working holiday scheme," she says.
Growers report that backpackers, who are allowed to stay for up to a year under a working holiday visa program, have tended since the European economic crisis to arrive without enough money to support themselves, so they are more eager to find work. And the numbers have increased by 82 per cent since the financial downturn began.
This has improved horticulturalists' chances of finding pickers, Newton says, but does not address the debilitating churn factor: backpackers tend to stay on the move, which means experienced pickers frequently need to be
taken off their regular tasks to train each new recruit.
The economic turmoil of the past 18 months has also caused some retrenched workers to return to their home areas in rural Australia and to consider taking up jobs in horticulture. But as the resources sector recovers, it is luring them away again.
When the Pacific workers scheme was devised, Newton says, "we had a great many growers desperate for workers".
They initially expected about 200 workers each in two regions: Griffith in NSW and Swan Hill-Robinvale in Victoria. The costs associated with bringing them had to be met by the regions.
Newton says the most significant issue constraining the scheme's development is the labour hire model. Labour hire firms -- three initially, but the details are under review -- are given exclusive responsibility for recruiting and placing the workers, and charging the growers for this.
The labour companies are also responsible for providing appropriate pastoral care for the workers, few of whom are likely to have travelled overseas before.
There have long been tensions between labour companies and growers, which are not confined to those involved in the Pacific scheme. "I am sure there are excellent companies out there, but people in the industry complain to me about both growers and workers being exploited, with growers often having to wear the resulting opprobrium. There's a credibility issue." Newton says.
She suggests grower co-operatives might be allowed to take responsibility for Pacific workers "as the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations attempts to tweak the scheme to make it more attractive for Australia's regions".
But she says it is important to develop community-to-community links with the Pacific areas that the workers come from, so that the local church, sport and service clubs and other organisations connect, thus strengthening "the values of family and hard work that find resonance in many Pacific communities".
Every year there is usually a natural disaster that damages one or two crops, so it is important to have a fallback plan in place within a region to ensure that returning Pacific workers continue to find jobs, Newton says.
There is no national co-ordinator in the Australian scheme. This has resulted in the arrival of Pacific workers "who know how to read a pay slip but don't know what an orange is. There's been a fair degree of culture shock around," she says. "We view the New Zealand model as better. Pacific seasonal workers have become part of the core workforce there." There is a regional co-ordinator in New Zealand for every 30 growers involved in the scheme, and growers there estimate that Pacific workers are 25 per cent more productive than backpackers.
Nic McLellan of Swinburne University, who has conducted substantial research on Pacific seasonal worker schemes, says Australia could learn much from the New Zealand experience, and that in the Pacific there is an expectation that "there should be quotas in any agreement, to lock in numbers of workers to be recruited, so that labour mobility is not restricted in times of recession or political dispute".
Newton says: "A lot of our businesses haven't been able to invest in expansion because of problems in finding pickers. So the pilot scheme had strong supporters here. Sensible growers won't rely on the vagaries of backpackers.
"In a country the size of Australia you can't micro-manage it by remote control from Sydney or Canberra. No one is saying the pilot has failed, but we would like to see it tweaked more."
Margaret King, the migrant settlement services co-ordinator for Griffith City Council, an important horticultural region, says the labour market has dropped off slightly. And the Pacific subclass 416 visas, which are valid for up to seven months, pose a problem for some farmers, who feel unable to guarantee work for that period, as the picking and pruning seasons are not that long.
King says it would be better to match the islanders with two growers for three months each. This year, there are fewer growers looking for labour in the Griffith area because the citrus crop did not set there.
DEEWR says the pilot scheme "was established as a small-scale, demand-driven trial to test the feasibility of a seasonal labour mobility program. A key feature of the pilot is that experienced, productive and motivated workers can be selected to return to Australia in following seasons." Some of the 31 Tongan and i-Kiribati almond workers in Australia now were involved in last year's harvest. DEEWR says "the host horticulture organisation sought their return due to unmet demand for labour, and the Pacific workers' experience and motivation".
The department, which is assessing labour organisations seeking to become an approved employer under the scheme, says such employers are "also working with growers in Queensland to test the labour market, which will inform any future recruitment".
But Evans says Pacific seasonal workers are to be hired only "after employers have demonstrated they have first made reasonable efforts to employ Australians".