ADELAIDE (Australian Broadcasting Corp./Pacnews) — The first 200 international fruit-picking workers will head to the Riverland after touching down in Adelaide ahead of the citrus harvest, with their arrival expected to ease “critical shortages” in the sector.
The seasonal workers are the first cohort of about 1,200 from Tonga who will arrive in the state over the next three months.
All will be immediately transferred to the Paringa Resort near Renmark, where they will undertake two weeks of quarantine.
The South Australia or SA government said the scheme had been given the green light because of the “very low case numbers of Covid-19” in Pacific Island nations.
The program is expected to cover what the government described as a “critical worker shortage” at a time when the state's multi-billion-dollar horticulture industry is also battling major and ongoing fruit fly outbreaks.
Primary Industries Minister David Basham said steps had been taken to ensure the community was not put at risk.
“They'll actually have a test before they leave Adelaide Airport and before they arrive in the Riverland those results will be known,” he said.
“If there are any positives, which we don't expect there to be, the buses will be turned around and taken back to Adelaide and those positive [cases] would then be isolated in Adelaide.”
The quarantine program will cost an estimated U.S.$5.3 million and is being jointly funded by the government and industry.
Approved employers under the seasonal worker program will have to contribute U.S.$1,902 per worker.
The arrivals are part of the nation's Pacific Labor Scheme and Basham said that, without them, fruit would go to waste.
“That [would] also put at risk other jobs down the chain,” he said.
“t's very important we get these pickers in for [growers], to secure and keep those jobs we have here operational.”
While the government has previously said quarantine arrangements need to occur in Adelaide to allow proximity to hospitals, the fruit pickers will isolate in regional SA.
Growers and packers have expressed concerns about the cost of quarantine at a time when they are also being forced to fork out on fruit fly control measures.
“It's an up-front cost…it will definitely add extra pressure,” said Andrea Tsakarellos, from Venus Citrus in Loxton.
The company's managing director Helen Aggeletos told ABC Rural last month that she was initially informed the cost per worker would be U.S.$1,141.
“We need an explanation why this additional (U.S.$761) has been added at the last minute,"Aggeletos said.
“It's probably one of the most expensive costs of quarantine in the state.”
Peak body Citrus SA repeated calls for a quarantine-free travel bubble with the Pacific Islands to cut costs for growers.
Tsakarellos said the industry would have preferred workers were granted quarantine exemptions, provided they had tested negative for coronavirus.
“The costs are quite high. Unfortunately we've got to rely quite heavily on the seasonal workers program this year,” she said.
“We also rely on backpackers, but this year there aren't any backpackers around.
“Taking the backpackers out of the equation, we need to get the fruit off and we need to get it packed, so we need people or we can't operate.”
The next group of 200 workers will arrive in a fortnight, with the Paringa facility to undergo deep-cleaning between each quarantine period, the government said.
Basham said there would be eight workers per cabin, which would have self-contained facilities.
“We've been unable to get Australian workers to do this,” he said.
“There's been a lack of traditional workers in this space…and unfortunately we've been unable to convince people to move out to the regions.”
The Primary Industries Department, SA Health and SA Police will oversee the program.
About 100 workers were flown into SA from Vanuatu in January to alleviate pressure on growers.