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Worker arrival is only the beginning

Business Management

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 edition of AFG, available online here.

Considering heading down the path of becoming an Approved Employer of Pacific Islander workers for future seasons? APAL talks to those who have, about the challenges and the rewards.

Ten-pin bowling trips, outings to nail salons, organising driver licences, building business skills and managing home sickness are just some of the day-to-day commitments that come with caring for the 100 Pacific Islander workers Tasmanian labour hire provider Kim Layton employs.

Highly sought-after for their work ethic, much of the focus on Pacific Islander and Timorese workers has been on how to negotiate the notorious red tape required to be approved to employ them, less so on what is involved when workers arrive.

Kim, who runs Linx Employment, as well as partnering husband Troy in the Parramatta Creek Orchard, at Sassafras, said many workers were leaving tight-knit family groups including young children behind for a minimum of nine months. “They are tasked with the responsibility of earning an important income and coming from countries with a slow pace they face cultural challenges that require more support than backpackers or domestic workers,” Kim said.

Good preparation before departure, support on arrival and in understanding Australian culture and expectations to ensure wellbeing were as important as the logistics around sourcing workers and getting them on a flight.

“You don’t close that gap overnight, that’s a massive piece of work. And everyone from government down needs to be more involved,” she said.

Kim Layton, Linx Employment, pictured with a team of seasonal workers from Vanuatu.

Building autonomy

Linx is an Approved Employer under the federal government’s Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme with licences in Tas, Vic and Qld.

Many of Kim’s current seasonal workers have been in Tasmania for 18 months. Most are from Vanuatu where tourism employment has been hard hit by Covid-related travel restrictions and have been encouraged to stay and support their villages, communities, and families financially.

“We have seasonal workers here already on the ground in Tassie as they opted to stay during the pandemic, and they know they’re a valuable commodity because we don’t have backpackers. So, they are starting to recognise their own worth, which is really good.

“And growers absolutely look at them as liquid gold, they don’t take them for granted for one minute.

“We know that having seasonal workers on your property improves productivity by 30-40 percent straight off the bat. You don’t have to worry whether they’ll turn up every day, growers can go to bed at night knowing they’ve got a reliable and engaged workforce.”

“They are quite happy to be here,” Kim said. “If they are homesick, we get the church involved, make sure there’s people within their accommodation groups that keep an eye on them and escalate things if they think they’re getting too low.”

Giving workers the autonomy to look after their own needs is a priority and Linx has ‘people mover’ style vehicles that can be used by those who have a recognised driver licence.

“The cars give them the ability to travel in smaller groups,” Kim said. “They can go off and live separate lives, not everything has to be condensed into their living quarters and work environment.

“We develop a strong relationship with them and visit every week on farm and at their accommodation. We’re social with them and try to do things they’ve never experienced before like 10-pin bowling and going to the nail salon.

“We’ll treat them like a tourist for a day, take them sightseeing – it’s about doing more than just working while they’re here.”

There are two initiatives in the PALM scheme: the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) and Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) and both provide much needed labour for Australian employers while allowing workers to build skills, earn income and contribute to the broader economic development of their countries. Linx encourages visiting workers to look at the activities they enjoy in Australian from the perspective of opportunities for future self-employment.

“When they go back home, potentially there’s an opportunity to set up a tourism-focused business around these things,” Kim said.

“We talk a lot about building business plans and always having at least one big goal when they get here and help by recording those goals and working to build on them too.”

Cultural differences

Kim is passionate about assimilating the workers into society and ensuring they feel like part of the community but says Australia’s practice of socialising over alcohol is one of a few cultural challenges bubbling beneath the surface.

Many sending countries require their workers don’t drink alcohol while in Australia, the traditional drink for relaxation across the Pacific Islands is kava, made from the kava plant. However, kava was banned in Australia 20 years ago and workers can only bring in a small amount for the own consumption, once they run out, it is either hard to get or available only at extortionate black-market prices.

“We need to be realistic; they’re coming to a nation of drinkers so it’s really hard when there’s alcohol outlets on every corner to say: ‘do not drink’,” Kim said.

“If they go to social things where there might be locals that work at the same farm as they do, maybe a barbecue, the locals are sitting there having a beer and they’re going, well, I’ll have one of those too.

“It’s a combined effort – we have to work to appreciate and understand them, but they also have to understand and appreciate our culture as well which includes what we expect and require in a work environment, like coming to work on time and not being hung over.

“A starting point could be to assist them with adequate driving skills and education around drinking alcohol. Everyone we’ve talked to from the islands says: ‘if we had kava, we wouldn’t drink alcohol’ so the kava would just relax them, it chills them out at the end of the day.”

Compliance a full-time job

Wellbeing and a commitment that Pacific Islander workers are not exploited is a core responsibility of the international agreements. The paperwork to underpin this – and tick boxes about not taking jobs from Australian workers – is notorious and featured prominently as a barrier to participation in submissions to this year’s review of the SWP and PLS programs.

Reforms announced in mid-September brought the two programs under the umbrella of the PALM scheme (although left them administered by separate government departments). The announcement provided for a single application for both schemes, increased portability and annual rather than bi-annual labour market testing requirements.

Kim says the scheme reform is a step in the right direction and looks forward to being part of the new and improved program.

“Like any change, there’s bound to be a few tweaks along the way and Approved Employers are a passionate lot so I’m sure there will be plenty of feedback,” Kim said.

“We are closer to the first phase of the AgVisa which is also very exciting and with the relaxing of borders and international travel opening up, growers will be able to breathe a little easier knowing they have options around labour.

“Still, the paperwork, the forms and the processes to guarantee responsibility for that one person is a real distraction from our core business.”

Faced with the higher demand for labour this season, Linx took the opportunity to team up with nationally recognised not-for-profit organisation, and PALM scheme Approved Employer Jobs Australia. Kim said with Jobs Australia taking on the compliance and paperwork, Linx could focus on placing as many workers with Tasmanian growers as possible.

“Jobs Australia’s whole culture is very aligned to ours, they’re mindful around the welfare and wellbeing of the workers they bring in, they’re dynamic and have a great authentic, ethical fibre about them,” Kim said.

“They didn’t have a real presence in Tassie even though they’re Australia-wide and an uncapped Approved Employer so they can bring in an unlimited number of seasonal workers.”

Spread your risk and seek help

Even though Kim is an advocate for the SWP she recommends growers don’t rely completely on Pacific workers to get through the season ahead and if they need help ask for it.

“You need to have a suite of workers from different sources – Pacific workers, backpackers and locals,” Kim said.

“If the Delta strain (of coronavirus) was to run rampant in the Pacific Islands, the farms that rely solely on those workers would not survive.

“Growers need to be more in tune with long term labour planning, it’s hard to build a solid business from the ground up if the thought process isn’t at the top of the pile.

“The smaller growers in particular have so much going through their heads they often pick and choose employees without thought or strategy.”

Offering training opportunities, supporting additional study, providing finance to get chemical certification, forklift or tractor ‘tickets’ and developing skills around supervising or coaching the people around them are all ways to start growing a valuable labour force.

“If growers feel like they’re sinking it’s important for them to reach out to someone, now’s the time to stop working in silos and start working together,” Kim said.

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