Foreign workers in limbo
An expensive plan by local labour hire companies to import workers from the Pacific islands could be in tatters after the WA Government withdrew support for hotel quarantine arrangements.
Labour Solutions and Vinepower had secured permission for a self-funded flight of 84 workers expected to arrive in the region next month to help with pruning.
The Times understands the gruelling process involved waiting through the recent State election and then awaiting personal sign-off from Premier Mark McGowan.
Everything was confirmed, and the Tongan workers — Margaret River regulars who couldn’t come last year, and missed a stable source of income — were keen to start. But a review of WA’s hotel quarantine arrangements by the State’s Chief Medical Officer nixed the plan because the incoming workers were above the accepted cap on arrivals.
Margaret River Wine Association chief executive Amanda Whiteland said the Tongans were “essential workers for critical vineyard work”.
“This is disappointing blow for the Margaret River wine industry, particularly as we just complete one of the most challenging vintages in many years, with labour shortages adding to the challenges from mother nature and China export tariffs,” she said.
“While we appreciate the work done to date to keep Western Australians COVID-safe, there is already a seamless history of welcoming Pacific workers into WA since December with zero cases.”
She said the latest shift was “a massive blow” and the deadline to confirm the next flight was on Monday.
Labour Solutions managing director David Cooper hoped WA Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan would find a solution.
Vintage picking, now winding up for the year, was difficult with a workforce at just 40 per cent of its usual strength, and the Tongans were needed for autumn pruning.
“It’s really disappointing if the Government can’t find a solution when every other State has,” Mr Cooper said.
Labour Solutions had used the Commonwealth Seasonal Worker Program without a hitch for seven years. When pressed, Mr Cooper was unable to identify any measures the State Government offered the wine industry to address labour shortages.
Ms MacTiernan and former Tourism Minister Paul Papalia were unmoved in the face of a local campaign last year when MRWA and the Margaret-River Busselton Tourism Association sought the extension of an agricultural subsidy scheme to vineyard and hospitality workers.
Ms MacTiernan said work was still in progress to guarantee the Margaret River-bound flight, but confirmed another early May venture would not go ahead.
“While we understand this is frustrating for growers, we cannot risk the safety of our community,” she said. “We expect to have a decision on the late-May flight early next week.”
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