Aug 3, 2023 | Latest News

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Australians will face higher prices for fresh salads and vegetables if the Federal Government pushes ahead with changes to a popular foreign workers program.

Member for Gippsland Darren Chester and industry leaders have warned the Albanese Government that ill-thought-out changes to the Pacific Australia Labor Mobility Scheme (PALM) will have unintended consequences and undermine our relationship with Pacific countries which rely on the scheme.

“PALM serves as a critical way in which Australian farmers, including Gippslanders, can gain access to workers from the Pacific Islands and Timor-Leste, when employee numbers become scarce,” Mr Chester said.

“The PALM scheme allows employers to hire workers from participating countries to fill roles in unskilled, low skilled and semi-skilled positions in a rural and regional setting, and nationally in the agriculture sector.

“The countries that participate in the scheme are very supportive of the program, especially where it is delivering remittances to communities where the average household incomes are much lower than they are here in Australia.

“The scheme helps fill the gaps in the regional and rural workforce and offers our employers access to reliable and productive workers which contribute to not only the economic life but to the social and cultural life of the communities in which they are hosted.”

Mr Chester said there were 40,000 PALM scheme workers in Australia as of May this year, but the changes announced by the government to force a minimum 30 hours per week didn’t recognise the seasonality of farm work and undermined the viability of the scheme.

“The changes the government have introduced as part of the budget process have been criticised not just by those on this side of the Parliament, but also by the industry itself,” Mr Chester said.

AUSVEG Chair and local horticultural industry leader Bill Bulmer has also warned the government that less workers will be brought to Australia under its changes.

“The future of PALM is under threat following a rushed and inadequate consultation on proposed changes that will make the scheme less attractive for growers. It will be a lose-lose-lose situation for workers, growers and consumers,” Mr Bulmer said.

“The horticultural industry has led the charge with PALM as its major employer and advocate, but this will be undermined if it is no longer fit for purpose.

“Industry has warned government that implementing a fixed-hours requirement will decrease demand for Pacific workers, which negates the intent of the program to assist our Pacific partners.

“Averaging 30 hours a week over eight weeks is a sensible solution. The change takes into account any adverse weather events and unforeseen challenges with growing fresh produce and will give the industry confidence to hire more PALM workers while ensuring staff are well paid.”

Mr Chester urged the government to listen to the experts in the industry, not Canberra-based bureaucrats.

“Listen to the advice from people who are working with the scheme on the ground,” Mr Chester said.

“Don’t be so stubborn. Understand that the font of all wisdom does not exist here in Canberra. Listen to the industry and make the changes that will make it work on the ground in regional Australia.”


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