Pacific workers arrives 'in nick of time' for citrus harvest

Pacific Islander workers arrive from Tonga in time for SA citrus harvest

Agribusiness
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The first of 1200 Pacific Islander workers have arrived in "the nick of time" to help the state's citrus crop make it to market.

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JUGGLING ACT: Citrus SA chair Mark Doecke said it was important workers were ready to go as harvest ramped up, with a number of export markets reliant on SA produce.

JUGGLING ACT: Citrus SA chair Mark Doecke said it was important workers were ready to go as harvest ramped up, with a number of export markets reliant on SA produce.

The first of 1200 Pacific Islander workers have arrived in "the nick of time" to help the state's citrus crop make it to market.

About 200 workers flew into Adelaide from Tonga on Friday last week, and are halfway through their two weeks of quarantine at the Paringa Resort in the Riverland before they are able to begin harvesting fruit.

Citrus SA chair Mark Doecke said it was satisfying to know growers could get through this year's harvest, which was at risk due to difficulty sourcing labour.

He said the 1200 Pacific Islander workers would also be supplemented by existing visa-holders, as well as Australian workers, to ensure the crop would be able to be picked in a timely manner.

While more workers would be welcomed, he said the planned 1200 would be enough to "take the pressure off".

Primary Industries and Regional Development Minister David Basham said PIRSA had been working closely with SA Health and SA Police to ensure that public safety was a high priority.

The initial 200 workers will be undergoing daily COVID-19 testing while in quarantine.

Once they are able to begin work, the next group of workers will arrive, with the facility deep-cleaned between each group.

Mr Doecke said there had been some pressure in recent weeks, with harvest already under way in parts of the Riverland, but it was good to see the program at work.

By the time the sixth plane load gets here, we'll be at the peak and they'll be here in the nick of time. - MARK DOECKE

"There were some delays to satisfy public perception," he said.

"Tonga hasn't had COVID for 350 days so there is no reason for anyone to be concerned about (workers) coming in."

Mr Doecke said the harvest was starting slowly, with the first arrivals expected to be ready right as the need increased.

"By the time the sixth plane load gets here, we'll be at the peak and they'll be here in the nick of time," he said.

The program is expected to cost about $7 million - or $5000 per worker in quarantine costs - with industry contributing $2500 per worker.

Mr Doecke said the industry regularly had to bear the costs of bringing in international workers to meet demand, but this year the quarantine costs would add roughly 20 per cent to the usual expenses.

Despite the extra costs, he did not expect to see price rises passed on to consumers in the supermarket.

"It might work out as an extra five cents a tonne and that shouldn't be an excuse to hike the price up," he said.

Instead he said the biggest concern was in making sure the crop was able to be harvested to meet the export markets they had developed.

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Mr Doecke said they were expecting a good harvest this year.

"We've got good crops with good quality and plenty of fruit," he said.

Mr Basham said it was important that a solution was found to fill the seasonal worker shortage and ensure the crops were harvested.

"If fruit doesn't get picked it would have devastating impacts across the entire supply chain, which is why these workers are needed now," he said.

"The state government has made a significant push to encourage unemployed locals to take up fruit picking this year, but unfortunately not enough people have answered the call."

While the 1200 workers are initially committed to working in the citrus industry, once the bulk of that work is complete, there will be the option for workers to look at contracts in other agricultural sectors struggling to find workers.

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