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Horticulture sector faces a labour shortage

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The horticulture sector in Australia’s north is facing a major labour shortage and growers want the government to help by expanding the Seasonal Worker Program to include South East Asian countries.

Northern Territory grower Ian Quinn says the mango industry is particularly worried about a lack of pickers for this year's season, ABC Rural reports.

Quinn said the problem has been created by changes to the Working Holiday Visa, causing backpackers to head to hospitality jobs over farms.

"In the past, we've been relying on backpackers, who work on farms for three months, to extend their visas for a second year. That's been the bait," Quinn said. "But that has been changed and the same (incentive) has been extended to the hospitality sector and the construction industry, and it's also been extended to other zones near Melbourne and Sydney, so they (backpackers) don't have to go to the bush any more.

"This year we've had very few enquires for work and we're very concerned as to where the labour is going to come from."

Quinn believes the ‘worker crisis’ could be avoided by including South East Asian countries in the Seasonal Workers Program, an idea backed by the Australian Mango Industry Association (AMIA), the NT Farmers Association (NTFA) and the Northern Territory's Vietnamese Horticultural Association (NTVHA).

Mango grower Tou Ruchkaew said the Northern Territory has a large population of Asian growers, and being able to source workers from their home countries would be a win-win.

"We'd be targeting people in rural areas and farmers (of South East Asia), and because we are counter-seasonal to them, when they finish their rice farm (harvest) or taro harvest they can come here for eight to twelve weeks and probably make the most money they've ever made in their lives," Ruchkaew said. "They appreciate the money, work hard and, importantly; they'll come back next year."

Under the Seasonal Worker Program, farmers are allowed to employ workers from Timor-Leste, Kiribati, Nauru, Papau New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, but only when they cannot find enough local workers.

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