Employer Barry Albrecht says that the Northern Territory mango pilot helped save the 2020 harvest.
"It's a big opportunity to come here," said Marina Newero, as she emerged from two weeks in quarantine at the Manigurr-ma (Howard Springs) quarantine facility in the Northern Territory (NT), Australia. "Coming to Australia, we feel very safe. We've been briefed, have quarantined and so far, so good."
It was September 2020, and Newero from Vanuatu was part of the first group of Pacific islands workers to arrive in Australia since borders closed in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
They could not have arrived at a more crucial time.
Supporting the Local Harvest
Each year, farmers all around Australia rely on Pacific workers for the harvest because of persistent local labour shortages. For the last eight years, these workers have been recruited through the Australian Government's Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) and since 2018, the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS).
The Palladium-managed Pacific Labour Facility (PLF) administers the PLS and during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, provided important supplementary support for SWP workers. The PLF works closely with Pacific and Timorese governments to build the pool of suitable workers and help Australian businesses in regional and rural areas meet their workforce needs.
When Australia shut its international borders in March 2020, Australia’s two labour mobility programs were halted, and NT farmers could not access their overseas workforce. The NT mango industry in particular suffered from this change, facing a loss of AUD 50 million worth of unpicked fruit.
“Early on, we realised we wouldn’t have enough labour for the impending mango season,” said NT Farmers Association CEO Paul Burke. “We were looking at potentially only picking half the crop.”
The pause on Australian labour mobility programs impacted not only farmers, but Pacific workers like Newero. “It can be difficult to find work back home, and many of us earn money overseas so we can buy land, pay for children's school fees and upgrade our living standards," she explains.
With the mango picking season approaching, the NT farming industry began lobbying for a restart to the PLS and the SWP, focusing initially on bringing workers over from Vanuatu, which, like the NT, had managed to remain COVID-free.
In August 2020, the NT, Australian, and Vanuatu Governments agreed on a labour mobility pilot – with new safety requirements including two weeks in quarantine for all 162 Ni-Vanuatu workers and on-farm health regulations.
For the PLF, this meant a busy month ahead.
The PLF team worked closely with the Vanuatu Government Labour Sending Unit (LSU) and multiple stakeholders to prepare visas, health checks, coordinate flights and quarantine logistics for the workers. At short notice, the LSU facilitated a two-day intensive pre-departure briefing for all 162 workers travelling to Australia. This included a COVID safety module as well as handouts translated into Bislama, Vanuatu’s national language.
"It was a hard deadline we had to meet," said Vanuatu LSU’s Sandrina Naio. "We were successful because of the support and positive relationship within our team and stakeholders in Vanuatu and Australia."
The hard work was welcomed by Barry Albrecht, owner of Arnhem Mangos, who said the workers’ safe arrival had brought a wave of relief to local farmers. "Without these people, the Northern Territory wouldn't get the crop off," he said.
“Thanks to both the Australian and Vanuatu Governments for getting this first flight over here to help pick these mangoes.”
Based on the pilot’s success, a further nine flights from four different Pacific island countries and Timor-Leste arrived in Australia before Christmas.
Despite the ongoing challenge of COVID-19, Pacific labour mobility programs continue to support state and territory governments and industries to recruit and mobilise workers safely – providing an essential source of labour for Australian businesses, and an income for Pacific island and Timorese workers.
The Pacific Labour Facility is funded by the Australian government and implemented by Palladium. For more information, contact email@example.com.