WA government announce negotiations on getting international workers for harvest season

Image by Labour Solutions Margaret River.

Image by Labour Solutions Margaret River.

WA Agricultural minister Allannah Mactiernan has announced the government will try and fill the labour shortage in time for this season's harvest.

On October 15 the minister said based on health advice that the WA government would support the agricultural and horticultural industry by joining the federal government's Seasonal Worker Programme and Pacific Labour Scheme.

She said they would be joining the schemes with strict conditions to protect the health and safety of WA residents.

The Mail reported last week that VegetablesWA had warned of a potential food shortage if farmers did not get enough workers.

The new measures will initially focus on recruiting Seasonal Worker Programme and Pacific Labour Scheme workers that have already quarantined in the Howard Springs facility in the Northern Territory.

The State Government is in discussions with the Northern Territory and Federal Governments on bringing new Seasonal Worker Programme and Pacific Labour Scheme workers into the country and utilising quarantine facilities in the Northern Territory before being allowed to enter Western Australia.

South West MLC and shadow agricultural minister Dr Steve Thomas said the announcement was good news but something he called for a couple of months ago.

"I'm pleased the government have finally come to the table on this, I called for this in August and it was rejected, now they have come kicking and screaming," he said.

Dr Thomas said the problem now was that negotiations would delay workers getting here and the lag time was already damaging the sector.

"Some crops have already been ploughed, some farmers have reduced the amount they have planted because they don't know if they will get workers or not," he said.

"We will still see an increase in food prices as it will be weeks or months before we see pickers arriving in WA."

The state government have continued to blame the Commonwealth for its nation-wide international border closure in cutting off the supply of working holiday makers coming to WA for harvest work.

Ms Mactiernan said the Commonwealth had not been forthcoming in incentivising those on JobSeeker payments into agricultural work.

"So the state government is moving to ensure WA growers have another tool at their disposal to fill labour shortages," she said.

However, Dr Thomas said it was absolute nonsense for the state to blaming the federal government.

"It is a state issue and should be up to the state to solve it," he said.

"They are trying to shift the blame on their own incompetence."

Federal member for Forrest Nola Marino said the Commonwealth was investing $33.7 million to support farmers by encouraging Australians to take a 'domestic gap year' and enabling eligible temporary visa holders to work in the agriculture sector.

"South West agriculture sector is facing unprecedented pressure on labour supply as a result of COVID-19," she said.

"The Morrison Government is investing in relocation support and temporary Youth Allowance (YA) and ABSTUDY eligibility changes, to incentivise people to take up seasonal farm work this summer.

"Relocation allowances of up to $6,000 for Australians and up to $2,000 for eligible visa holders will be available from 1 November to undertake at least six weeks of seasonal work in agriculture.

"These changes will support agricultural production in the South West so that farm produce does not go to waste, ensuring the agricultural sector continues to play a key role in our local and national economic recovery."

The Nationals WA say the agriculture minister continues to fail the state's farmers and growers with her latest half-baked attempt to solve the agriculture sector's acute workforce shortages.

Leader Mia Davies said the government's plan to borrow overseas workers lured to the Northern Territory was too little, too late for WA's agricultural and horticultural industries.

"Pinching a couple of hundred of labourers after the Northern Territory and Federal Government have done the heavy lifting to bring them into the country just doesn't cut it," she said.

Last month, the State Government launched the 'Work and Wander out Yonder' campaign and related worker incentives scheme to encourage Western Australians to help fill labour gaps across regional WA.

Read More:

Ms Mactiernan said the campaign had drawn strong interest from local jobseekers and is expected to channel students, school leavers and other Western Australians into agricultural work.

Ms Davies said the minister also revealed less than 60 applicants had received accommodation subsidies from the Primary Industries Workers Regional Travel and Accommodation Support Scheme.

She said The Nationals WA had raised the prospect of workforce shortages as early as March, encouraging government to put plans in place to stem the loss of interstate and international workers.

"The Minister and Premier didn't want to listen and now they are caught in the mire of their own inaction - and our farmers, growers and consumers are paying the price," she said.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Western Australian growers employed around 1,000 Seasonal Worker Programme workers - with the majority of remaining harvest jobs filled by Working Holiday Makers (backpackers).

The state government will also allow for greater movement of critical agricultural workers from interstate, subject to usual isolation and quarantine requirements.

The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development will place a five-person team within the WA Police Force to help manage the new system.

The Work and Wander out Yonder campaign will continue to roll out and will ramp up activities in November to encourage university students and school leavers into the industry ahead of summer holidays.

This story International pickers on the agenda first appeared on Busselton-Dunsborough Mail.