Northern Territory Farmers encourages targeted training in horticulture for seasonal workers

Northern Territory Farmers encourages targeted training in horticulture for seasonal workers

Northern Territory Farmers encourages targeted training in horticulture for seasonal workers

Updated 21 March 2017, 18:10 AEDT

The development of targeted training will be crucial in developing a reliable seasonal workforce, says NT Farmers.

The development of targeted training will be crucial in developing a reliable seasonal workforce, according to the Northern Territory Farmers Association.

In an effort to address the labour shortage currently stifling the Top End's horticulture industry, NT Farmers attended an Australian employers' conference in Timor-Leste.

A focus of the forum was on the opportunities and challenges currently affecting Timorese workers wanting to take part in the Federal Government's Seasonal Worker Program.

The program has been used by NT mango farmers, taking workers from the Pacific Islands and Timor Leste to fill demand.

But to continue, CEO Shenal Basnayake said pre-departure training was crucial to expand the Timorese workforce.

"We would like to see more targeted training," he said.

"We would like these guys to be much more focussed on horticulture as an industry and get specific training for those things … getting these guys as ready as they can to come to the Northern Territory.

"One of the other things I raised with the Government is the fact that not all farming in Australia is the same.

"Different commodities require different skill sets and different regions require different ways of doing things, so we would like to see a little bit more tailored structured training programs.

"We are able, ready and willing to help deliver those training programs or even check off and make sure they are fit for purpose."

Mr Basnayake said the Timorese Government was very open to ideas and suggestions as to how it could improve.

"At the end of the day, if they improve it is more than likely our farmers are going to want to take more of these people and they will build a good reputation for themselves," he said.

In 2015 the Northern Territory had 48 seasonal workers come from Timor-Leste and last year that number grew to 76.

Mr Basnayake said he would like to see the program continue to grow as Territory farmers struggled to find enough workers.

"It is hard to get good, committed, ongoing, long-term labour in the Territory," he said.

"We see this Seasonal Worker Program as one of those programs and an avenue to assist in plugging some of the gaps.

"I would like to see the program with the Timorese continue to expand and I would like to see us able to access more and more of these people [because] Timor is still a fairly new country into the Federal Government's Seasonal Worker Program."

Room for improvement and additional funding

Before the program could expand, Mr Basnayake said it needed continued funding.

"The project is coming to an end in the middle of this year; it was a pilot program and we are hoping to see that it continues," he said.

"I have had discussions with Minister [for Primary Industries] Ken Vowles and some of the other [politicians] about continuing to fund this program."

Despite the success of the program, it has been criticised for not being suitable for small farmers — given the outlay costs.

Mr Basnayake said the Seasonal Worker Program was far from perfect and could be improved.

"There are a number of issues with the Seasonal Worker Program and the inflexibility that it has built in, and the fact that it is an aid program and it is very specific to which countries," he said.

"I think there is a definite need for the Federal Government to look again at the program and understand where the requirement is for labour and where we would like to get labour from.

"From a farmer's perspective we want labour, we want access to and security of that labour and, yes, this is a very good program but we would like to see it expanded."