Vanuatu offers national airline to bring hundreds of harvest workers a day

Vanuatu offers national airline to bring hundreds of harvest workers a day

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SOLUTION: The island nation says its airline could bring hundreds of harvest workers a day, and has proposed three different quarantining options. Photo: Chris McLennan

SOLUTION: The island nation says its airline could bring hundreds of harvest workers a day, and has proposed three different quarantining options. Photo: Chris McLennan

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The Pacific Island nation, which is COVID free, believes its plan is a ready-made solution to the pandemic-induced labour shortage crippling the agriculture industry.

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THE Vanuatu government has put forward a proposal that could see more than 300 harvest workers a day brought in to the country.

The Pacific Island nation, which is COVID free, believes its plan is a ready-made solution to the pandemic-induced labour shortage crippling the agriculture industry.

The Vanuatu government says it could use its national airline, Air Vanuatu, to bring workers approved under Australia's Seasonal Worker Program.

Each flight is capable of bringing 160 people and it's possible for flights to go directly to large regional airports, such as Mildura, twice a day.

It also has put forward three quarantine options for the workers; on-farm quarantine, pre-departure quarantine in Port Vila resorts or a Pacific Island harvest worker travel bubble.

Letters outlining the proposal have been sent to federal and Victorian ministers, but despite the plan's potential, so far there has been little interest.

Former Vanuatu Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Sean Gilchrist, who recently returned to Australia after a decade in the country, said the offer was open to all state governments.

"We feel as though there is some real potential here if people were to sit down and look at it seriously," Mr Gilchrist said.

Vanuatu has been the largest Pacific labour supplier to Australia over the past five years and Mr Gilchrist said if the plan was approved, up to 5000 pre-vetted workers could be allocated in a very short period of time.

"The plane is sitting there doing nothing, so it could be fired up at the drop of a hat," he said.

The federal and state governments have been at each other's throats, arguing over who is to blame for the labour shortage - but Mr Gilchrist said Vanuatu's proposal "isn't about point scoring".

"It may not be the final solution, but we have three viable [quarantine] options on the table and they should be discussed openly," he said.

"It's a good solution that meets the immediate demands for producers and offers the employment required by Vanuatu's citizens."

AusVeg national public affairs manager Tyson Cattle said Vanuatu was central to any scenario that involved ramping up the number of Pacific workers.

"We're aware of the proposal - we share their eagerness and we're just as keen to get a result," Mr Cattle said.

"It just adds to our frustration. The state and federal governments need to work this out. We're now in the crux of harvest time for some states and we're still no closer to a solution.

"The current quarantine situation isn't working and there's a lot of other things the federal and state governments could be doing rather than finger pointing."

Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the states demanded to have responsibility for their own health and quarantine arrangements.

"If the Andrews government can create a special pathway for international tennis players to attend the Australian Open next month, surely they can also prioritise the needs of their own farmers," Mr Littleproud said.

Victorian's recently-minted Agriculture Minister Mary-Anne Thomas was asked about the Vanuatu proposal, but declined to comment specifically on the plan.

"Growers have told us that they need a range of workers to ensure this season's harvest," Ms Thomas said.

"We continue to work on options to address the shortage, including welcoming Pacific Island workers to Victoria."

Ms Thomas also pointed out the states were waiting for the Commonwealth's risk stratification work of countries in the Pacific region to inform quarantine requirements for seasonal workers.

Mr Gilchrist said Vanuatu's proposal was also scalable to other COVID-free Pacific Nations.

"If any other countries want to get on board, we're happy to facilitate it so multiple countries are getting a bite at the cherry," he said.

Australia's search to fill the shortage, estimated to be around 26,000 workers, with the domestic labour has been close to fruitless.

So far around 350 Australians have taken up harvest work since November, when the government introduced a $6000 relocation package and streamlined access to Youth Allowance.

Of the 22,000 pre-vetted Pacific workers, 1425 have arrived in Australia. Victoria is the only state yet to receive any of the pre-vetted workers.

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