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200 Islanders a 'fraction' of Victorian harvest needs as NSW grants public servants harvest leave

Give us a hand with the harvest, the NSW government has asked public servants

Two hundred newly arrived Pacific Island workers and a national 'first' scheme for public servants to take harvest leave are among the latest efforts to assist with the farm labour shortage - but farming advocates worry they won't go far in addressing a labour shortage exceeding 20,000 across Victoria and New South Wales.

Victorian Agriculture Minister Mary-Anne Thomas confirmed on Thursday that after quarantining through the Apple Isle, 200 more Pacific Island workers had arrived to assist with farm labour.

However, the agreement outlined in Thursday’s announcement comes as too little too late for a crippled and severely undermanned industry, according to Shadow Minister for Agriculture Peter Walsh. The Nationals Victorian leader told a press conference on Thursday morning:

“The first 200 of the next tranche of Pacific Island workers will come into the State this week – that is just a fraction of what’s needed...a single orchardist would be able to take all of those workers in one go.”
“Last year the estimation was somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 seasonal workers were needed, this year – probably at least that if not more.”

Walsh, the member for horticultural electorate Murray Plains on the Victoria-NSW border, said one of the main issues for the hamstrung industry’s crippled workforce relates to the simple fact “locals don’t want to do that work.”

Meanwhile, Walsh's NSW Nationals leadership counterpart and Deputy Premier Paul Toole today announced that thousands of public servants will soon be able to get five days' leave in an effort to fill the shortages during this year's harvest.

Mr Toole told AAP:

"We can have a bumper crop but if you can't get the crops off .. that's going to have a massive impact on farmers.
"It might just be driving a chaser bin, it might be driving a harvester - we're just trying to get the bodies on the ground to be able to assist our farmers right now that need this support."

Those who work for the Department of Regional NSW, which includes local land services and the NSW Department of Primary Industry, will be eligible for the scheme. Up to 80 per cent of the staff who work for Department of Regional NSW are based in the regions and it's estimated more than 4500 will be eligible to apply.

Mr Toole said the options were vast and varied:

"These workers can volunteer to help out with any harvest, anywhere in the state - from harvesting blueberries in Coffs Harbour, oranges and table grapes in the Riverina and Murray, to cherries in the Central West or helping bring in a bumper grain harvest."

NSW Farmers President James Jackson said any efforts to bolster the harvest workforce were welcome, but the initiative was unlikely to put a real dent in the shortage:

"We've been highlighting the dire need to improve access to harvest workers for weeks now, and this will certainly help, but cherry growers, for example, need workers for five weeks, not one."
"There is a shortfall of at least 10,000 harvest workers this season, and that's because of the COVID restrictions we've had in place."

NSW Farmers wants the government to consider trialling on-farm quarantine for double vaccinated international workers, with the current rules costing $1500 per head.

Public servants aren't the only ones being called on to help growers hamstrung by labour shortages, with retired soldiers also being urged to swap their fatigues for farm gear and volunteering their skills. 

Mr Walsh has been a strident critic of what he implies is the Victorian government's reactive approach to the workforce shortage:

“The Andrews Labor Government’s had 18 months to find a long-term solution, but our growers are facing the same shortages again this season because Mary-Anne Thomas is missing-in-action and failing to make any genuine progress.”
“It’s disappointing the Andrews Labor Government arrogantly refused to adopt industry’s proposal for a dedicated quarantine facility at Mildura, which was backed by the Commonwealth.”
“If they’d picked up on it, it would have delivered 200 workers every two weeks since December.
“Victoria needs a better pathway, a more secure pathway, that will deliver a larger pool of workers to meet demand.”


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