Pacific Island workers good for business and families

With recent Government statistics showing a sharp drop in the number of working visa applicants, apple and pear growers need to have a range of options for harvest labour. The experience of major citrus producer Costa Group shows how the Seasonal Worker Programme is delivering results elsewhere in the horticulture industry.

The Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) helps Australian farmers meet their seasonal labour needs by providing access to workers from the Pacific and Timor-Leste. The programme offers employers in the agriculture sector access to a reliable, returning workforce when there is not enough local Australian labour to meet seasonal demand. SWP workers gain both skills and income benefiting their families and communities.

In 2016-17 more than 6,000 workers from nine Pacific Island nations and Timor-Leste completed up to six months unskilled seasonal work across Australia under the SWP. According to Department of Home Affairs data, visa approvals for the SWP were up by 56 per cent between July and October 2017 as compared to the same period in 2016.

Delivering business benefits

The Costa Group in Renmark South Australia, with over 2,000 hectares of citrus production, employs around 1,000 people annually and joined the SWP in 2012.

Steve Burdette, Costa Group’s Business Development Manager, said that one of the core business benefits of the programme is it helps them get access to reliable labour.

“We have three recruitment areas,” Steve explained. “First and foremost, we look after the local population. We try very hard to make sure locals get the work first, and invariably take on supervisor and quality controller positions, roles with more responsibility.

“Then we have backpackers and workers from the SWP. The biggest issue with backpackers of a seasonal nature is that they start, then their visa ends in three weeks, and we must change people over and train others.

“However, with the SWP, the workers are here for a set period. They are here every day, we know they are going to arrive and they are trained. Having that reliability of labour is critical for us,” he said.

After more than five years in the program, Costa is now looking to expand their participation in the programme beyond people from Tonga and Fiji to include Samoan workers.

The SWP has benefitted Costa’s local employees who are able to fill the skilled supervisory positions while SWP workers and working holiday visa holders make up the unskilled picking labour force. Skilled opportunities for the locals have increased as the business expands. Farmers employing Pacific seasonal workers under the SWP can also reduce training and supervision costs by having the same workers return each season, creating continuity of employment and ongoing skill development. This is a significant win for both.

“I highly recommend this programme to any grower that is serious about securing a reliable workforce and may find it difficult to satisfy their labour needs through a lack of local workers in the first instance,” said Steve.

“The SWP is a partnership and you have to see it as one. At Costa, we make it a priority to look after their wellbeing which means we must know our responsibilities and be committed to the program. This means ensuring they are paid properly, that they get the right number of hours, and they are treated with respect and dignity, because that is the essence of the partnership.”

Costa Group and seasonal workers

While the business benefits of SWP are a tangible benefit for the Costa Group, Steve said that the programme is more than just getting access to labour.

“More importantly is to see the people we recruit changing their lives back home. For us that is an amazing achievement when people go back and build homes, never had running water, now have a new home, a vehicle, and it helps to make them self-sufficient,” said Steve.

When it comes to the performance of Fijian workers, Steve said, “General performance and productivity is very high with the seasonal workers because they are incentivised on their own, to actually earn more money – it is all about getting money back to their families.

“I think Australians don’t really understand the socio-economic background some of them come from. If we can provide opportunities – then we have achieved a great deal from Costa’s perspective,” he said.

Steve went on to say that he often receives emails from workers’ families describing the impact of the SWP on their lives. A recent email from the family of a worker expressed their joy about the boat and vehicle they had purchased with SWP payments with which they planned to start a tourist whale-watching business in Tonga.

As an extra benefit for Costa’s SWP workers, the business organises shipping containers for the workers to send items home, such as generators to do some contract work or start a business.

“We know that the things they take home will make their children and their families very happy. It’s all about helping them to get forward in life and if we can achieve that then I think we have achieved a great deal from Costa’s perspective,” Steve said.

From Fiji to South Australia

One of the seasonal workers picking fruit at Costa in Renmark is Jone Dusilele Raitani from Koro Island in Fiji.

“Back home in my village we are all farmers and I get some money for my family from growing and selling taro and cassava at the Suva market,” said Jone.

SWP participants save an average of $8,500 over a six-month period working in Australia. Jone is planning to invest his earnings in his village as part of the rebuilding efforts following cyclone Winston.

“Before we came here cyclone Winston hit our village very hard. Nothing was left in my village, no houses, no food, no water, no anything. So now we must start again,” said Jone.

“When I go back I will start to build some shelter and buy other things for my family. My family is very happy I came here to work. They know I will get money for us back home to build a house and be able to start again after the cyclone.”

A spokesperson for the Programme said “The SWP fills a gap in the Australian labour market, providing Australian farmers with access to a reliable workforce that can return each season, building skills and reducing the need to retrain workers,” she said.

“For workers and their families, it can be a life-changing opportunity as seasonal workers benefit from the opportunity to earn Australian wages and gain valuable on-the-job learning opportunities.”

Source: Australian Aid

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