Australian states yet to request Pacific workers

Australia’s Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has lamented the delay by Australian states to write to their federal government requesting foreign workers from 10 Pacific Island nations including Samoa.

The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper quotes the Agriculture Minister as saying no state has so far submitted any plans, which would show health protocols of on-farm quarantine arrangements as well as interstate travel restrictions.

Australia’s Cabinet reportedly decided on December 11 that if Australian states submitted their health protocols proposals, the federal government would approve visas for seasonal workers from the Pacific Islands including Samoa.

"It's disappointing no state has yet written to the Commonwealth with protocols to bring more foreign workers into Australia after National Cabinet reaffirmed states wanted to maintain ownership of these protocols," he said, reports Sydney Morning Herald. "If the states don't understand the urgency of the situation then crops will be left in the paddock and consumers will pay more at the checkout."

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian government's agriculture forecaster predicts the price of summer vegetables, stone fruit, apples, pears and table grapes will rise by 15-25 per cent this year due to labour shortages. 

The sector reportedly relies heavily on a foreign workforce, primarily backpackers, which has dried up with Australia's border closed during the pandemic.

There are 22,000 people across 10 Pacific nations – countries largely free of the coronavirus – who were pre-vetted in August to come work in Australia, added the Sydney Morning Herald.

Industry body AusVeg has told the Australian newspaper that's the only guaranteed workforce of the scale needed (from the Pacific Islands) if the state governments will let them in.

"That's our best shot at the moment so we're throwing everything at it to try and expand a trans-Tasman bubble to the Pacific Islands," spokesman Tyson Cattle told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Victorian Employment Minister Jaala Pulford said on Sunday her government was reportedly working closely with the sector and keeping an open mind about the arrangements needed.

Queensland has had a trial program of allowing foreign seasonal workers to quarantine on farms according to the Sydney Morning Herald, which Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews have held up as a "best in class" scheme. 

However, Mr Cattle says it's brought in only about 480 workers, far short of what farmers need.

"Growers at the moment are really struggling, a lot of guys have already reduced their plantings, a lot of guys are already walking away from crops," he said. "That effect is starting to be felt by the supermarkets and the wholesale markets and through the supply chains already.

"If we can’t get a resolution to this in the more immediate term, then that’s only going to worsen, particularly in the first three months of next year."

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