A shortfall of more than 400 seasonal workers from Vanuatu continues to jeopardise the Northern Territory’s $128 million mango industry, Labor MP Luke Gosling said.
Speaking in Canberra yesterday, Mr Gosling called on the federal government to assist the industry with quarantine fees after it was revealed the local mango industry footed the half-a-million-dollar bill to charter workers from Vanuatu to Darwin last month.
Just 162 Vanuatuans, taking part in the federal government’s pilot seasonal worker program, are “literally saving the mango harvest in the Northern Territory,” Mr Gosling said.
But many more workers are needed to fill the gaping hole left by the exodus of backpackers at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The estimate of the sector was that about 600 seasonal workers were required to pick the mangoes this season,” Mr Gosling said.
“We have got a lot fewer than that. The pilot has been conducted. What should happen now is that all the pickers that we need are able to come, quarantine and get onto the farms.”
NT mango farms picking and packing on a slim margin
With weeks left in the NT harvest season, the largest grower of Calypso mangoes in Australia is struggling.
Nino Niceforo, the owner of the sprawling farm near Katherine, is down 130 seasonal workers.
Today in the field he says he is picking the fruit that will soon be bound for supermarkets Australia-wide with just nine other pickers. In a typical year he works with 66.
Leo Skliros, president of the NT Mango Industry Association said that while workers are still greatly needed to fill the gaps on farms in the Katherine region, it is too little too late for farmers around the NT’s capital.
“It is getting late in the season to push for more [seasonal workers] because they would have to get on a flight and quarantine,” he said.
First raising the issue of a severe worker shortage months prior to the start of the harvest, he said the government could have done more to facilitate the arrival of overseas workers.
“You can’t attack any one player, it is a difficult world at the moment, we’re dealing with geo-political issues, the chief health officer and lots of stipulations attached to the Seas onal Worker Program, but there have been a lot of issues with the program from the start.”
Inquiry into labour shortage brought forward to address issues now
Earlier in the year, reports of fruit being left to rot in fields sparked an inquiry into the federal government’s Working Holiday Maker program.
While a final report is due at the end of the year, Labor MP Julian Hill said an interim report had been brought forward to provide “urgent” solutions to the “problems facing farmers now”.
The inquiry heard “significant and very serious evidence” about the growing labour shortage in the agriculture industries across Australia, Mr Hill said in Parliament yesterday, asserting “it’s not something we can ignore”.
It highlighted the need for the federal government to work with state and territory governments and industry organisations to recruit additional people under the Seasonal Workers Program and Pacific Labour Scheme to fill “urgent shortfalls in agriculture”.
Between March and June this year, the number of backpackers in Australia fell from 140,000 to 70,000 prompting the National Farmers Federation to say, “industry will be confronted with a labour crisis, the likes of which it has never seen before.”
“The regional labour shortage is serious, growing and urgent,” Mr Hill said.
The gap year solution
With overseas travel essentially off the table for the forseeable future, school-leavers are being called on to fill the labour shortage gap.
The inquiry committee put forward a host of recommendations to the government ahead of the final report, urging more assistence to get regional unemployed people into work on farms, and cut red tape to overseas workers.
But the reccommendation hinges on a ‘Have a Gap Year at Home’ campaign to attract young Australians, particularly the current cohort of Year 12s and university graduates.
“Just as holiday-makers can’t come here, there are thousands of young Australians whose gap-year plans for 2021 are in tatters, as the world keeps its borders shut tight,” NSW Libeal MP John Alexander said.
“Why not encourage the people who can’t leave here to pick up for the people who can’t get here?”
However, Mr Gosling highlighted concerns around protections for backpackers and overseas workers remain, with some of the working conditions continuing “to fall far short of Australian community standards”.