Worker scheme shake-up

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There are more than 35,000 workers from the Pacific currently in Australia. Picture: ABC News: MATT ROBERTS

Unions and farmers are at odds over changes to the way foreign workers are employed on Australian farms.

Growers say they’ll be forced to employ fewer workers from the Pacific as the Australian government introduces changes to its Pacific worker program.

Under the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme workers must be offered 30 hours of work per week.

Currently the hours can be averaged over the duration of the employment, typically nine months for short-term farm workers.

But new guidelines introduced by the federal government will mean that from July next year, the employers will no longer be able to average the hours and must ensure 30 hours are offered each week.

The changes are part of the government’s plan to expand the PALM scheme, merging the former Pacific Labour Scheme and Seasonal Worker Program.

Australian Fresh Produce Alliance chief executive Claire Mc- Clelland said the changes would make it harder for farmers to employ workers via the scheme.

“We’ll have no choice but to reduce the number of PALM workers engaged in our workforce,” Ms McClelland said.

“That’s going to have a really significant impact on our relationship with the Pacific, which is something that we’ve built over 10 years through the program.

“It’s particularly disappointing that it will force employers to turn away from a regulated visa program and to focus again on employing backpackers.”

Farmers urge flexibility

As of February, there were more than 35,000 workers on the PALM scheme in Australia, the majority employed in farming.

The alliance’s members are responsible for about 50 per cent of the Australian horticulture sector’s turnover and employ around 7000 workers on the PALM scheme.

Ms McClelland said farmers required the flexibility to average the hours to factor in weather changes that could delay fruit picking or other farm tasks.

“The challenge with 30 hours a week is that when there’s a weather event or rain or extreme heat, we lose a couple of days of being able to safely have workers access our production sites,” she said.

“Despite there being work about work available across a longer period of time, we can’t actually get into the farm to meet those requirements. “We need to be able to average those work hours to meet our seasonal fluctuations.”

Changes sensible, union says

A spokesman for the Department of Employment, which has oversight of the PALM scheme, said the guidelines would allow for exceptional circumstances such as extreme weather to be considered when meeting the minimum hour requirement.

But Ms McClelland believed averaging the hours over a fourweek period would be a more appropriate outcome for the industry.

Australian Workers’ Union national secretary Dan Walton described the changes as sensible and reasonable.

“There’s a bit of hysteria about [the idea] people are not going to be able to operate,” Mr Walton said.

“If you don’t want to engage PALM workers, then you need to focus on … opportunities for local workers to work on your farms.

“It is unfair entirely to say that we’re going to bring workers in from the other side of the world and sit them on their backside to get paid two hours or an hour or four hours because I didn’t actually get organised and ready to get the harvest underway at the time they arrived.

“Essentially, that is saying that you’re poorly prepared, poorly organised and put in place poor farming practices.

“What we say is workers are not slaves.”

Changes to the PALM guidelines will also require employers to appoint a welfare support person within 200 kilometres of a worker placement.

The requirement will see one welfare support person appointed for every 120 PALM workers.

• KATH SULLIVAN is ABC’s national rural reporter. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of this newspaper.

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