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Calls to hire unemployed Australians first

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (The National, February 18, 2009) – There is bad news for Papua New Guineans eager to join the queue to earn good money picking fruits in Australia – demand for seasonal workers has dropped Down Under.

With bushfires still creating havoc and unemployment suddenly rising in Australia as a result of the global economic slowdown, Australian politicians are demanding that employers there turn to the country’s unemployed and retirees.

The Australian opposition is calling for an urgent review of the Pacific Islands guest worker scheme amid rising unemployment and with the summer harvest well under way, according to PacNews.

On Monday, 50 Tongan workers arrived in Australia, looking forward to earning "big bucks".

They were among the first of 2,500 unskilled migrants from PNG, Kiribati, Vanuatu and Tonga who had been promised harvesting work in Swan Hill in Victoria and Griffith in NSW for up to seven months a year.

However, circumstances have changed drastically since the scheme was announced last August.

Unemployment is forecast to rise to 7 percent by next year.

And, of course, bushfires have scorched farmlands in Victoria.

Australian opposition spokeswoman on immigration Sharman Stone said that Australians, particularly those hurt by the economic downturn, should be first in line for jobs.

"Picking almonds at Robinvale may be just the sort of work our self-funded retirees may be looking to do," she said.

"We really have to look at Australia’s unemployed first."

Australian agriculture minister Tony Burke defended the scheme, saying Australians did not want seasonal work.

"It never mattered what the unemployment rate was," he said.

"The farmers have been complaining for decades about trying to get enough workers to pick the fruits,"

Mr. Burke and employment minister and Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard admitted that demand for overseas workers was less than expected.

Only four growers in the designated trial areas had registered interest, indicating that demand was low and likely to get even less.

PNG is to participate in the scheme later this year.

A government spokesman said he doubted PNG would be dropped from the scheme, adding preparations were on track and nothing had changed.

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