Call to expand guest worker program beyond the farm

The Federal Government has been urged to consider extending a scheme to bring in guest workers from the Pacific Islands to help address labour shortages in sectors other than horticulture.

The Federal Government has been urged to consider extending a scheme to bring in guest workers from the Pacific Islands to help address labour shortages in sectors other than horticulture.

Like the fruit and vegetable farming sector, parts of the retail, hospitality and manufacturing sectors are struggling to find enough workers to fill vacant low and unskilled positions, particularly in rural areas.

But under a trial scheme announced by Federal Agriculture Minister Tony Burke yesterday, only selected horticulture businesses will be able to employ the Pacific Island guest workers.

As many as 2500 workers from Kiribati, Tonga, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea will be able to come to Australia for up to seven months per year under the three year pilot scheme.

The farm businesses that employ them will be required to cover costs in relation to things like airfare, accommodation and assistance in helping them settle in.

They generally cannot use the existing s457 scheme because it only applies to workers in skilled occupation classes, which excludes the fruit and vegetable picking roles the guest workers will fill.

Restaurant & Catering Australia chief executive John Hart says he will be closely watching the trial and, if successful, would urge the Government to extend it to allow hospitality businesses to participate.

“If you were looking at where low skilled occupations are concentrated in Australia you’d logically target the service industries,” Hart says.

Pacific workers could attend an Australian Technical College already established in the region to receive the training necessary to perform front and back-of-house hospitality roles, Hart says.

The retail sector is also getting in line to participate in any future expansion of the guest worker scheme. National Retail Association executive director Gary Black says a labour shortage persists in the sector despite current tougher economic conditions.

The general consensus would be retail is still experiencing significant labour shortages. There is still a need to examine arrangements for broadening the recruiting pool, and I can’t see any reason why consideration wouldn’t be given to expanding the program to include industries like retail,” Black says.

The manufacturing sector could also benefit from an increased flow of low-skilled labour, particularly in rural areas, according to Australian Industry Group communications director Tony Melville.

We do get information from that part of the agriculture sector related to manufacturers, in wineries and canning operations for example, that they’d like to access scheme, so they would be the next natural step beyond purely pricking related industries,” Melville says.

But extension of the program to the broader manufacturing sector would probably require broader research into its role in urban areas and non-seasonal industries, he says.

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