New deal secures more Pacific Islander farmworkers for Victoria

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Victoria will get an extra 1500 Pacific Islander workers to fill shortages on farms, but the farming federation has warned more quarantine facilities are urgently needed to meet the agriculture industry’s needs.

The state government has faced criticism in recent weeks from the sector amid fears that demand for workers would overwhelm supply from next month.

Fruit grower Maurice Silverstein and picker Lale Faitala harvesting pears in Orrvale earlier this year.Credit:Justin McManus

The Victorian Farmers Federation welcomed the promised increase in seasonal workers but said it was only a small step towards filling huge workforce gaps.

The latest agreement to secure more workers comes after the federal government sought to pressure Victoria to renew its quarantine arrangement with Tasmania and guarantee more pickers for Victorian fruit and vegetable growers.

Under the new deal, the Victorian government will continue providing quarantine for Tasmanians returning to Australia. In return, the Tasmanian government will take care of quarantining Pacific Islands workers before they arrive in Victoria.

Victorian Agriculture Minister Mary-Anne Thomas said the workers were in addition to 1500 employees from the region arranged through negotiations with the Tasmanian government early this year.

Agriculture Minister Mary-Anne Thomas.Credit:Joe Armao

The Pacific Islanders are expected to arrive by March. The state government will contribute $5300 towards the quarantine costs for each worker, while farmers will pay $2000.

Ms Thomas rejected suggestions a deal had been sitting on the state government’s desk for weeks and it had acted too slowly to secure more workers.

“The Victorian and Tasmanian governments have been working closely on this arrangement,” she said.

Ms Thomas expected farmers would begin making applications immediately for the additional workers.

Victorian Farmers Federation president Emma Germano says new quarantine facilities are urgently needed. Credit:Jason South

Despite the promised increase in the Pacific Islands workforce, Ms Thomas said Victorian growers had to focus on attracting locals to work in the sector.

“The harvest happens for around nine months of the year, so there is great opportunity for different grower associations to think about how they can work better together to offer longer-term employment.”

Victorian Farmers Federation president Emma Germano said the addition of 1500 workers was much needed but was a “drop in the ocean”. She said 24,000 workers were needed for the coming peak season.

“There’s no hiding the fact that we still don’t have the required quarantine facilities needed to host the numbers of workers our industry needs,” she said. “We’re more than 18 months into this pandemic and it’s still no clearer if or when our governments will commit to providing a road map to COVID-normal.”

Ms Germano said the debate about bringing in foreign seasonal workers had not progressed since last year. “You only need to look at other countries and see they’re far more progressed in what COVID-normal looks like.”

Victorian Nationals leader Peter Walsh described the announcement as a “band-aid” solution that would fail to make a dent in the thousands of vacancies across the sector.

“Workforce shortages are crushing the livelihood of our farmers and Victoria’s $16 billion agriculture industry, but the Andrews Labor government has delivered little hope today,” Mr Walsh said.

He said the Victorian horticulture sector expected to be 15,000 workers short of requirements, while other food producers were also reporting workforce gaps.

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