Despite travel bans, fruit pickers from the Pacific will arrive in the NT this month

Australian farmers have been given the green light to recruit seasonal workers from the Pacific and Timor Leste. It's a relief for workers and farmers, they tell SBS News.

Peterson Mariango has been a seasonal worker since 2018.

Peterson Mariango has been a seasonal worker since 2018. Source: Aneeta Bhole

Peterson Mariango, is a 28-year-old from Tanna Island in Vanuatu. He has been working as a seasonal worker in the Northern Territory since 2018.

He said the seasonal workers program has allowed him to maintain a steady income, as work opportunities in his home country dry up amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

"Back home, there are no jobs really," he told SBS News. 

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"There are no jobs at this time of COVID-19 and the only revenue we can get back to our homes is seasonal work.

"Tourists are no longer available."

Mr Mariango says the program has provided a steady income for him and his family, while work in Vanuatu has dried up amid the pandemic.
Mr Mariango says the program has provided a steady income for him and his family, while work in Vanuatu has dried up amid the pandemic. Source: Aneeta Bhole


Mr Mariango has been working as a picker at Darwin Fruit Farms.

He is one of 16 Pacific workers who remained on-site before the seasonal workers program was shut down in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

"It's hard work, especially in the heat of the Darwin sun," he said.

"But every two weeks I'm able to send money back home to my family and provide for them.



"I also learn a lot about farming, from mangos to bananas to watermelons and pumpkins, I learn a lot. I'll take what experience I have and share with my friends back home."

Mark Smith is the farm manager and said without Mr Mariango and the other Pacific workers who stayed on, it would be near to impossible to finish a season of picking.

Mr Mariango (R) works for Mark Smith (L) at Darwin Fruit Farms.
Mr Mariango (R) works for Mark Smith (L) at Darwin Fruit Farms. Source: Aneeta Bhole


"The government did allow us to extend our visas for our seasonal workers for another 12 months so that helped us out in our day to day routine," he said. 

"But if we don't get more in time for the mango season we'll be in trouble."

For Darwin Fruit Farms the mango season will start in October.



But Mr Smith said in order to respond to the labour shortages in the industry there will need to be close to 2,000 workers sent across the Territory for the upcoming season.

"Any workers we can get at that time will be helpful, we're trying to work with a few of the other farmers around," he said.

"The Honey Gold mango is a later variety than the KP [Kensington Pride] so that will be an advantage for us; when they've finished picking the KPs we might be able to get some workers. But I don't think it's going to be enough."

Mr Mariango says he'll take back what he's learnt on the farm to Tanna Island where he hails from.
Mr Mariango says he'll take back what he's learnt on the farm to Tanna Island where he hails from. Source: Aneeta Bhole


Mr Smith said it would be great to employ locals but previous efforts "don't seem to work out".

"Australian people don't want to work on farms, it's too hard," he said.

"It's even hard getting out of bed in the morning up here in this climate, let alone lugging fruit around and walking miles to pick them.

"Local people don't seem to be interested at all."

Mr Mariango is one of 16 pacific workers who remained on site, before the program was shut down in March due to COVID-19.
Mr Mariango is one of 16 pacific workers who remained on site, before the program was shut down in March due to COVID-19. Source: Aneeta Bhole


NT Farmers Association CEO Paul Burke agrees that a lot more workers will be needed in the coming months and not just for the mango season.

"Melons, grapes, cherries, berries, strawberries the range across Australia is tremendous and every single industry is starting to feel the pinch," he said. 



"We know we're about 30,000 to 40,000 people short over the next 12 months and those positions aren't going to come from Australians, we know that, so we really do need to ramp this project up."

The federal government reinstated the seasonal workers program in August to address labour shortages in the agricultural industry.

In September, 162 Vanuatu workers will travel to the Northern Territory as part of a trial run of the program and start working on farms following a two-week quarantine at Howard Springs.

NT Farmers Association Paul Burke says this is a good start but more workers are going to be needed in other upcoming fruit picking seasons.
NT Farmers Association Paul Burke says this is a good start but more workers are going to be needed in other upcoming fruit picking seasons. Source: Aneeta Bhole


Mr Burke said the trial will cost the Farmers Association $2,500 per person for quarantine plus close to $100,000 for a charter flight to Vanuatu.

But, he added, it's nowhere near the amount it will cost farmers who have to leave fruit on trees.

Pacific Minister Alex Hawke said the benefits will also go beyond the farm gate and foster relationships between Australia and its closest neighbouring countries.

"Australia's Pacific labour mobility programs are an important pillar of our support for economic development in the Pacific," he said.

Mango picking season starts in October at Darwin Fruit Farms.
Mango picking season starts in October at Darwin Fruit Farms. Source: Aneeta Bhole


"They deliver tangible benefits to Pacific and Timorese workers and their communities, including an opportunity to earn an Australian income, develop new skills and send remittances home.

"The program's focus on our Pacific family and Timor-Leste reflects Australia's special and enduring relationships with our neighbours and our abiding interest in their security, stability, prosperity and sovereignty.

"Economies and livelihoods have been hit hard by COVID-19, and labour mobility will play a vital role in supporting economic recovery in both Australia and the Pacific."


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5 min read
Published 1 September 2020 at 6:10am
By Aneeta Bhole