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                                                                                                              There’s a bad smell – or there’s going to be, by the end of the year.
                                                                                                              The sweet, cloying smell of mangoes, in fact, rotting where they fell because there aren’t
                                                                                                              enough people to pick them.
                                                                                                              It’s gearing up to be a bumper crop this year, growers say, but there’s no way to get all of it
                                                                                                              from the trees to your local market.
                                                                                                              “This year we’ve got the biggest crop of mangoes ever in Australia,” says Charlie Nastasi, owner
                                                                                                              of one of the largest mango plantations in Australia, just outside Mareeba. “And I can’t get the
                                                                                                              people to pick them. Everyone’s got a good crop and everyone’s going to be looking for labour,
                                                                                                              and there are going to be crop losses. We’ll take labour from any source available.”
                                                                                                              This year’s fruit crop in the region has a total estimated value of $30 million, but $6 million,
                                                                                                              or 20%, will be lost if there’s a significant labour shortage, growers say.
                                                                                                              Labour sources can be split into three main categories. Unemployed locals, Australian students
                                                                                                              and foreign backpackers, and, potentially, workers from nearby Pacific Island nations.
                                                                                                              But at the moment, backpackers have been put off by news of Cyclone Larry, Australian
                                                                                                              students prefer to take city jobs for higher wages, and locals appear reluctant to take the jobs
                                                                                                              at the current wage levels. As for imported labour, the Federal Government, with support
                                                                                                              from Labor, has firmly knocked the idea back.
                                                                                                              Following Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s refusal earlier this year to consider a guest
                                                                                                              worker programme, Jim Turnour, Labor’s candidate for the federal seat of Leichhardt, recently
                                               Travelling?                                                    told growers to employ local people.

                                            Looking Fo                                                        “Calls by Tableland’s farmers to import guest workers from Pacific Islands should continue to
                                                      r Work?                                                 be resisted,” he said in a recent media statement. “Foreign workers are not the answer as there
                                                                                                              are still many Australian’s [sic] who need jobs. Allowing growers to pay foreign workers less
                                                                                                              would threaten the wages and conditions of those who are currently working in the industry.
                                                                                                              I would encourage the industry to put its energy into working with all levels of government to
                                                                                                              improve its capacity to attract and retain a labour force.”
                                                                                                              This is just nonsense, according to growers and their industry body, the Queensland Fruit
                                                                                                              and Vegetable Growers (Growcom). It identified several reasons why horticultural labour was
                                                                                                              in short supply, including: low wage rates ($17 an hour is a typical figure), low employment
                                                                                                              security, a poor image, physically demanding work and long hours.
                                                                                                              Also, with the social security system offering nearly the same money as horticultural labour,
                                                                                                              there is little incentive for unemployed locals to seek such work.

                                                                                                              “This issue [of labour shortages] has caused much debate in previous years however no
                                                                                                              effective solutions have been reached,” Growcom said in a submission in March to a Senate
    INFORMATION SESSIONS                               MEATWORKS:
                                                                                                              inquiry into seasonal contract labour. “There are many cases where growers are short staffed
    YHA CENTRAL 3-4pm every Wednesday                  Various Locations through-out QLD with
    SHENANNIGANS 3-4pm every Tuesday                   100’s of opportunities for Hardworking                 although there are available or unemployed local residents.”
    Come along we can provide you with info on         Abattoir Hands.                                        Nastasi agreed.
    upcoming vacancies, what you require to be         Good $$$ to be earned.
    work ready & visa extensions.                      12 week commitment = Visa extensions.                  “We have to be allowed to get labour from whatever source we can,” he said. “Imported
                                                                                                              labourers are willing to work, it’s worth their while, and they’re good workers.”
    HARVEST:                                           LABOURING/CONSTRUCTION
    Positions growing daily. Commit now to             Constantly recruiting for construction crews           Nastasi has also put in place schemes for attracting more indigenous Australians to work in
    secure positions with accommodation.               and reliable labourers. Work is ongoing year           the industry, and employs a number of them
    SEASON STARTS 1st DEC                              round. Excellent rates. You must have - QLD
    Good hourly rates available! Over 2500             Blue Card Safety Boots & Hard hat. Preference          The importance of enthusiasm and motivation cannot be overstated, according to Kerry
    positions to be filled. Positions are at least 1   is given to those with transport. Positions            Grimwade, branch manager of local employment agency Grunt Labour.
    hour from Cairns.                                  available in Cairns, Innisfail & Mareeba.
                                                                                                              “Farmers don’t care who works — locals, backpackers, or imported
    CONSTANTLY RECRUITING FOR:                         INFORMATION & REGISTRATION:                            labour, as long as they are reliable and hard-working,” she says.
    Mining: Experienced Operators                                                                             “We need to cover all the bases.”
                                                       CAIRNS OFFICE
    Hospitality: Local, Remote Outback &
                                                       36 GRAFTON ST, CAIRNS 4870                             “Growers consistently say they want a reliable and motivated
    Tropical Island
    Chefs: In demand for Cruise Ships, Island          P: 4051 3733 • E:
                                                                                                              workforce,” said Growcom in its submission. “Many
    and Mainland locations                                                                                    unemployed persons do not want to work and therefore
    Trades & Technical: Fantastic Rates available      MAREEBA OFFICE
    Professional & Medical: Loads of                   149 WALSH ST, MAREEBA                                  growers do not want to employ them on their farms.”
    Sponsorship offers to choose from.                 P: 4092 3233 • E:
                                                                                                              Yet the situation regarding importing seasonal workers is not
                                                                                 so straightforward, according to the Centre for Independent

4         The Gate            Thursday 26th October 2006
                                                                                                                                                                 fe a tu r e
Studies (CIS), which believes that such a programme could push hourly wages up to                                      Shacking up
between $25 and $30, create an overstay problem and would do little to solve the Pacific                                  Except it isn’t. Even if there were enough workers — which growers
Islands’ chronic unemployment issues.                                                                                     vehemently deny — there’s not enough accommodation for them.
CIS instead proposes a shake-up of current welfare policies to encourage more                                             In past years, many fruit pickers have lived in tents, hardly an
Australians to seek seasonal labour.                                                                                      inducement to get up and put in a 10-hour day, especially if it’s been
                                                                                                                          raining all night.
“Welfare systems are another major reason for rural labour shortages,” CIS says in a recent
study. “Urban ‘stress’ is being increasingly used in claims for disability but there might be                           “We’re hoping for a late wet season,” says Grimwade, underlining that
no better cure for some stress sufferers than earning an income by picking fruit or working                            there are nowhere near the 3,000 under-cover beds that may be needed
in a cannery.”                                                                                                    on the Tablelands. “We just need workers’ accommodation which is safe and
                                                                                                  Councils on the Tablelands believe it is the responsibility of individual farmers and commercial
Green thumbs                                                                                      enterprises to provide accommodation for their workers. One idea is to build barrack-style
That bold approach will not help in the short term, though.                                       accommodation — many backpackers are used to eight-bed dormitories — or even areas
So a number of initiatives have been put in place to lure more backpackers to the fruit-picking   resembling a kibbutz.
industry, though some sceptics see no point in employing part-time labour from Europe when        Plus, there is no point in looking at Cairns to provide accommodation, due to the transport
they could get full-time dedicated workers from Australia’s near neighbourhood.                   problems, according to Grimwade.
“Backpackers aren’t really the answer,” says Nastasi. “They come here for two or three weeks      “You don’t want people to be travelling by bus to work for much over 45 minutes,” she says.
then head off, you spend one and a bit weeks training them, they give you a week, then they’re
gone. We want long-term people.”                                                                  Several farms, hostels and other organisations are trying to build extra accommodation to
                                                                                                  house seasonal workers, but are being held back by…. a shortage of building labourers.
But the initiatives are helping, the industry believes. For example, there is the Harvest Trail
initiative, which offers young travellers the chance to get a second Working Holiday Maker
(WHM) visa if they do three months’ seasonal work in regional Australia. But this only applies    Farm Track
to 19 countries which have a reciprocal working holiday agreement with Australia.                 If the coming season isn’t a multi-million dollar catastrophe for the farmers, it will only be as a
                                                                                                  result of extremely hard work by people across the industry. Grimwade says she is “exhausting
This year, the fear that Cyclone Larry would have devastated the plantations, or at least blown
                                                                                                                                                                             continued on page 6
down all temporary workers’ accommodation, has further
exacerbated the shortage of travellers looking for work.
Grimwade trawls the language schools in Cairns looking for
suitable workers, holding gatherings to familiarise students
with seasonal work. Many of them are suitable for seasonal
work, but still need to improve their language skills to comply
with safety standards.
          “You’ve got tractors and machinery on the farms,”
                 she says. “Workers need to have a certain
                                              level       of
                                               English to
                                                ensure their

                                            To   many   in
                                         the industry, the
                                      solution is obvious.
                              Many Pacific Islands have
                    workers, but no work. The Queensland
horticultural industry has work, but no workers.
“The Federal Government is scared to admit that there is a
need for low-skilled labour here,” says one industry insider
who preferred to remain anonymous. “I think there’s also a
worry about the connotation of the time of the forced labour
of the kanakas.”
It’s quite some irony that it was Pacific Islanders, the “kanakas”,
who were forced by the process of “blackbirding” to build up
much of the Far North’s rural industry in the 19th century but
are now denied the ability to return voluntarily to work.
Nowadays, overseas workers could spend most of their time
working where they’re needed at different harvests around
“Overseas workers could go round the country, it’s all they
would do, they’d benefit from it and they’re not taking any
jobs away,” says Nastasi. “I think it’s terrible that you’ve got
places like East Timor where there’s 90% unemployment and
yet we can’t employ them here. We’re being protective and
That doesn’t look likely to change soon. In its response this
month to the Corish Report on the future of agriculture
in Australia, the Federal Government said: “There is no
provision for the recruitment of overseas workers in unskilled
Joe Moro, chairman of the Mareeba District Fruit & Vegetable
Association, received the same message from the government
in Canberra last week, on the grounds that changes to the
WHM visa “has significantly expanded the stock of WHM visa
holders available to meet the seasonal demand for labour in

these industries.”
Well, that’s all right, then.

                                                                                                                                  The Gate          Thursday 26th October 2006                        5
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                          every channel to assist workers with accommodation and
                           travel for working the harvest season in Mareeba.”                 FNQ Harvest Calendar
                            If it is a catastrophe, it’s one that could have chilling         All year    Bananas & Sugar   Tully              May-Oct     Broccoli        Toowoomba
                            long-term effects, according to Nastasi.                           Feb-March   Pears             Stanthorpe         May-Dec     Sugar Cane      Ayr, Ingham,
                             “We’re going to have to leave fruit on the ground, and if        Feb-Mar     Apples            Stanthorpe
                            we have to keep doing that, one day we’ll have to close                                                            Jul-Sep     Ginger          Sunshine Coast
                                                                                              Feb-Apr     Rockmelon         St George
                           down,” he says. “Then we’ll all be buying mangoes from                                                              Jul-Dec     Onions          Lockyer Valley
                        other countries. And if you don’t have your farmers, and              Feb-Apr     Ginger            Sunshine Coast
                                                                                                                                               Sep-Nov     Tobacco         Mareeba
                      you’re importing all your food, that makes your country very            Mar-Dec     Vegetables        Bundaberg
                vulnerable.”                                                                                                                   Nov-Jan     Plums           Stanthorpe
                                                                                              Apr-Jun     Citrus            Gayandah &
                                                                                                                            Mundubbera         Nov-Jan     Cotton          Goodiwindi,
                                                                      David Legard
                                                                                                                                                                           St George
                                                                                              Apr-Oct     Wide range        Lockyer Valley
                                                                                                          of vegetables                        Oct-Jan     Peaches         Stanthorpe

                                                                                              Apr-Nov     Beans             Mary Valley        Nov-Mar     Cotton          Toowoomba,
                                                                                              Apr-Dec     Tomatoes          Bowen, Ayr
                                                                                                          and other                            Dec-Mar     Wide range      Stanthorpe
                                                                                                          vegetables                                       of vegetables

                                                                                              TAFE paves way for local careers
                                                                                              Tropical North Queensland TAFE is helping the Far North address the current
                                                                                              skills shortage through a range of innovative training partnerships, programs and
                                                                                              delivery options.
                                                                                              In partnership with the construction industry, TAFE helped recruit, train and place
                                                                                              ten blocklaying apprentices with local employers as part of a program titled Step
                                                                                              A joint initiative between Tropical North Queensland TAFE, Australian Brick and
                                                                                              Blocklaying Training Foundation and the Building and Construction Industry Training
                                                                                              Fund (BCITF), Step Out was launched earlier this year at selected high schools in
                                                                                              the Far North to help combat the current construction industry skills shortage.
                                                                                              Participants were then individually selected to undertake block laying training at
                                                                                              TAFE with the guarantee of securing full-time employment as apprentice block
                                                                                              Over the course of their training, the students learnt general block laying skills,
                                                                                              including brick and block laying, mixing, cutting steel, trowel use, level use and
                                                                                              labouring equivalent to first year apprentice standards.
                                                                                              The students effectively receive 12 months credit towards their apprenticeship.
                                                                                              Tropical North Queensland TAFE Institute Director Donna-Maree O’Connor said
                                                                                              Step Out provides a great opportunity for students, employers and the Cairns
                                                                                                                      region. “It’s another great example of TAFE working
                                                                                                                        with industry – working together gives these students
                                                                                                                         access to the best training and employment
                                                                                                                                                         The     innovative    program
                                                                                                                                                         received tremendous support
                                                                                                                                                         from     local   organisations

                                                                                                                                                         including    Hanson,    Boral,
                                                                                                                                                         Northern Brick and local brick
                                                                                                                                                         and block layers.

    Anything’s possible with                                                                             TAFE!
                                                                       Children’s Services
                                             Information Technology
Indigenous Studies                                                     Community Services
                                                                                                                                             Outdoor Recreation
                                                                                                                            your pathway to Greater possibilities

                                                                           1300 656 959

6    The Gate   Thursday 26th October 2006