A successful mango season is predicted for NT growers, but ongoing labor shortages persist

On Saramat “Tou” Ruchkaew’s mango farm, everything works.

Packers and pickers work seven days a week, 12 hours a day, in extreme heat and humidity, trying to harvest the fruit from the trees when they are fully ripe.

But time is running out – Ms Ruchkaew’s farm operates with less than half the staff it needs.

“At the moment we only have 30 people, so our fruit is still hanging from the tree,” Ms Ruchkaew said.

“And if we had enough staff to choose from, we’d have about 60 per cent now, but we’re about 25-30 per cent behind.”

The larger farms in the Northern Territory appear to have recruited enough workers to get the job done, but some smaller or independent farms have missed the entire season.

Ms. Ruchkaew says the staffing needs of small farms are often overlooked.(ABC News: Alexandra Alvaro)

According to NT Farmers, the peak body for farmers in the Territory, the labor required for the mango season is around 2,000 workers.

At times during the season, the number of workers has dwindled to as low as 1,400, but now the organization believes it is closer to where it needs to be.

But some farms tell a different story.

Ms Ruchkaew said that just like other sectors trying to recover from COVID-19, farmers like her are crying out for workers.

“We are at the bottom of the heap because [we are] out of sight out of mind,” she said.

“People don’t know that we are also facing a big challenge.”

Crates of ripe mangoes in a warehouse
NT Farmers expects the industry to produce 4.6 million trays of mangoes this season.(ABC News: Alexandra Alvaro )

She said the reason was due to a stipulation of the Pacific Australia Labor Mobility (PALM) scheme, which only allows her to employ Pacific workers for at least six months, when she needs them for much less.

Ms Ruchkaew said she could only afford to bring down a small number of workers.

“What are we going to do for six months when we pick for eight weeks?

“It’s economics 101…it’s very sad, very frustrating.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations said employers were required to ensure seasonal workers received a “reasonable net financial benefit” during their deployment, which took into account the length of stay.

“The PALM program provides opportunities for workers in the Pacific and Timor to develop skills, earn income and send money home to support their families and communities and the economic growth of their country,” said said the spokesperson.

“It’s harder to achieve with shorter deployments.”

Strong returns expected despite setbacks

As expected, a labor shortage prevented some growers from taking full advantage of a successful mango season in the Northern Territories.

Despite this, NT Farmers expects the industry to produce 4.6 million trays of mangoes, almost a million trays more than last year.

Nationally, between nine and 10 million trays are expected to be packed.

Picking will end in the Darwin area within the next two weeks, with the season in Katherine and Mataranka now also resuming.

Queensland farms also expect a high return.

“Work hard to get all the fruits”

Timorese worker Ameu Soares Maia has worked on Tou’s farm for seven years and has noticed the reduced number of traveling pickers.

“Because [we] have less workers…we try to push and work hard to get all the fruits,” he said.

“Every farm needs workers because they don’t want their food on the ground so they need a lot of workers to pick all the mangoes…but I don’t know why this year there isn’t not enough workers.”

Ameu Soares Maia
Ameu Soares Maia had to work very hard due to a lack of manpower.(ABC News: Alexandra Alvaro)

Manon Denys and her companion, originally from France, are also working in the Territory this year.

“In Australia, it’s very easy to find a job,” she said.

While drier conditions prevailed over the past week, rains earlier three weeks earlier spoiled some fruit.

At Leo Skliros’ farm in Berry Springs, two out of three mangoes picked are affected by rain.

“It’s perfectly fine inside, but damn ugly to look at,” he said.

A man with graying hair and a rainbow sun shirt holds a freshly picked mango with packing boxes behind him in the sorting shed.
Two out of three mangoes on Leo Skliros’ farm were affected by the rain.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

As many as possible have been sold for juicing, but many will go to waste and heaps of them lie under the mango trees around the packing center.

In total, between unpicked fruit, transport shortages and rain damage, Mr Skliros, who is also president of the NT Mango Industry Association, said 40% of his harvest would be wasted.

“People have lost 60-40% of their workforce – that’s a real challenge,” he said.

He said other growers called him, asking if his workers could pick on their farms once they were done on his farm.

Mr. Skliros says rain-affected mangoes look different on the outside, but they still taste the same.(ABC News: Alexandra Alvaro)

Labor constraints could last for years

NT Farmers chief executive Paul Burke said he wanted more visa flexibility to allow more foreign workers to help.

“That would be a really useful step forward – multiple entry visas – so once someone is an accredited seasonal worker they can come back multiple times without going through a visa application process,” he said. declared.

But he acknowledged that change would take time.

A man in a hat and blue shirt leans against a cattle fence.
Paul Burke says more flexibility is needed when it comes to visa arrangements for international workers.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

Australian Mango Industry Association chief executive Brett Kelly said the industry could struggle with labor issues for a few more years as the world returns to normal.

“You’re probably going to have another year or two before things start to normalize, for people to get organized in terms of travel and hiring labor, so there’s no quick and easy fix,” he said.

“A lot of our producers I talk to are very organized, they plan well ahead and they do their best.”

The PALM program allows farms to hire workers from 9 Pacific islands and Timor-Leste.

There have been multiple changes to the program, which died out during COVID, and slowly restarted with an arrival of Timorese workers in the NT for the 2021 mango season.

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), there are more than 2,880 Timorese PALM workers across Australia, of whom 238 work in the Northern Territories.

a tractor driving in front of mango trees
The federal government says it will help increase the number of seasonal workers to ease pressure on producers.(ABC News: Alexandra Alvaro)

A DFAT spokesperson said the government was working to increase the number of PALM workers in Australia to around 35,000 by June 2023.

“This was announced as part of the government’s 2022-23 budget and delivers on the commitment to expand and improve the PALM scheme, benefiting Northern Territory employers,” a DFAT spokesperson said.

The Northern Territories government is trying to arrange “tailor-made deals” with Pacific countries to bring in more PALM workers.

“As these are bespoke deals, there is no specific template,” said NT Business, Employment and Training Minister Paul Kirby.

“We have listened to NT Farmers and have written to Minister Giles and Penny Wong about areas of the PALM program that can be improved, to ensure that these negotiations can progress in a timely and constructive manner.

“The territory’s Labor government is also implementing a number of flexible workforce solutions initiatives, which will be unveiled in the coming months.”

Michael A. Bynum