Western Australia’s seasonal worker shortage is at a boiling point as states face off with the Commonwealth over the best way to address the crisis.
WA’s Agriculture Minister is calling on the Federal Government to introduce an undocumented worker amnesty system to address the looming national agricultural labour shortage.
Alannah MacTiernan met with heavyweights from the WA fruit and vegetable industry late last week and committed to lobby her Federal counterparts to accept the proposal.
The Commonwealth estimates about 86,000 illegal workers are operating in Australia, although it is unclear how many are based in WA.
With thousands of workers needed within just a few weeks, Ms MacTiernan said all options had to be considered.
“What we do know is that in the industry there has been … largely Malaysian and Vietnamese workers that have come out here on various visa classes and have stayed on,” she said.
“What the Federal Government has said is that their concern is these people are now in one sense here illegally in Australia and this would give them a reward [for overstaying].
“Our view is that these are exceptional circumstances, the people that are here, we know that they have been doing this work.
“This is an appropriate time, I would’ve thought, to have that amnesty, and get all this out in the open so … we can ensure that they are being properly treated.”
Victoria supports proposal
Ms MacTiernan said the idea had also been raised with the Commonwealth by Victorian Regional Development and Agriculture Minister Jaclyn Symes.
Ms MacTiernan said the proposal had been knocked back by Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud, but there were now plans to put the idea to Immigration Minister Alan Tudge.
“We’ve got virtually no immigration happening in Australia, this is the one time we can get this all sorted,” she said.
WA growers have told ABC Rural that while an amnesty would not increase the available workforce, it would help clarify questions about how many workers were available in the state.
Town takes to the streets
Farmers in the South West town of Manjimup, meanwhile, have taken to the streets to voice their concerns ahead of harvest.
The town typically attracts hundreds of backpackers to help clear trees and vines of avocadoes, passionfruit, cherries, apples and other fruits and vegetables at peak times every year.
But with many backpackers locked out of WA due to the state’s hard border closure, Shire of Manjimup president Paul Omodei said there were genuine concerns fruit would be left unpicked.
“November through to February is a very busy period here,” he said.
“We are in need of a sizable workforce.
Fair Work ‘doesn’t know they’re there’
One producer, who wished to remain anonymous because of the controversy surrounding the proposal, said an amnesty would enable industry to meet requirements set out by the major supermarkets.
“To supply the major supermarkets we must pass an audit and responsible sourcing guidelines,” he said.
“An amnesty would enable us to remain compliant while protecting the workforce.
WAFarmers chief executive Trevor Whittington said any measure that would increase the number of available workers was welcome.
“If its an opportunity for people to clear the decks we’d urge farmers to take it if offered,” Mr Whittington said.
“It’s no different to the Federal Government extending visas for existing working holidaymakers but the reality is that at best it’s only relevant for maybe a few hundred people, whereas we need thousands.”
In a statement, Mr Littleproud said the WA Government’s decision was disappointing.
“It is disappointing that Alannah MacTiernan would prioritise jobs for illegal workers over signing up to a National Ag Workers Code, which would give WA growers more certainty,” Mr Littleproud said.
“Any decision to give an amnesty for illegal workers must be done with a national security lens in mind with appropriate agencies’ input.”