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  • A Tongan man in a brown shirt and hat stands in an apple orchard.
Tongan and ni-Vanuatu staff help grower through difficult harvest

For West Australian fruit growers Newton Orchards, the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme has become an integral part of maintaining a 93-year-old family-run business and helped foster strong bonds with people in Tonga.

Having started in 1929, Newton Orchards is a third-generation family enterprise in Manjimup in south-west WA, growing apples, cherries, avocados and kiwifruit. 

A large group of Tongan men stand in front of flagpoles.
Newton Orchards raised the Tongan flag at the farm in support of the country after the January 2022 volcano.

Their long search for a reliable and quality workforce saw them become early adopters of labour mobility opportunities, recruiting workers from Tonga as part of the Australian Government’s Seasonal Worker Programme pilot more than a decade ago.

But the true value of the PALM scheme and the farm’s connection to Tonga shone through during the COVID-19 pandemic, when labour shortages hit Australian businesses due to border closures. 

'We just do not have a business without these guys'

"We’ve recognised for quite some time that we just do not have a business without these guys," said Nic Giblett, co-director of Newton Orchards. 

"We tried hard with Australians during the pandemic and it just did not work and we would have shut our gates without our core team of guys. 

Ni-Vanuatu women wearing high-visibility vests and hair nets
Ni-Vanuatu women have joined the farm in the pack house.

"Their work ethic is just amazing and they pretty much single-handedly got us through that terrible harvest."

Newton Orchards currently has around 41 staff from Tonga and a further 8 from Vanuatu in the packhouse, and their relationship built on mutual trust means the farm has welcomed back more than half their workforce for multiple seasons. 

Team leader Dave (Tevita) has been with Newton Orchards since the pilot program, while another Tongan employee has taken the place of his father, who had been working seasonally in Western Australia for many years. 

Ms Giblett said being able to welcome returning seasonal workers was a boost for training, but also helped new staff adapt to life in a new country. 

"We’ve got the trust and there’s no culture shock for our guys. We’ve got new guys coming all the time but then you’ve got the other experienced staff who can support and teach and train the new ones as well," she said.

Supporting their communities in Tonga and Vanuatu

Ms Giblett said her family business was proud to see how the wages of staff went back to improve their communities in Tonga and Vanuatu. 

"Some of them have built their parents’ houses or bought cars, put their sisters through uni and all of the younger kids in the family get put through schooling, that’s just incredible," she said.

Many of the workers have also been sending back tools and intermediate bulk containers (IBC) to help with farming at home. 

Ms Giblett said the PALM scheme was playing a key role in Australia’s national food security, and providing guarantees to regional communities which that rely on agriculture. 

"We can’t do all the work for agriculture in our region, which is our main industry. So these men and women are now hopefully part of our community moving forward," she said.