SWP workers return to Dili International Airport on Wednesday, March 25 (Image/Antonio Gonçalves)

CANBERRA, 6 April 2020 (TATOLI) – Timor-Leste’s Ambassador to Australia has welcomed a move by the Australian government to allow Seasonal Workers to extend their stay in the country.

Facing a farm labour shortage after the country closed its borders to foreign workers in response to Covid-19, Australia’s Agriculture Minister announced over the weekend workers can now extend their stay up to 12 months.

The changes only apply to those working with approved employers in key industries, such as agriculture and healthcare.

Timor-Leste’s Ambassador to Australia, Inês Maria De Almeida (Image/Julião Fernandes)

Ambassador Inês Maria de Almeida said it was a welcome decision for the 1,200 Timor-Leste workers currently in Australia.

“The Embassy greatly appreciates the arrangement by the  [Australian] Government,” she told TATOLI.

Timor’s Labour board SEPFOPE suspended recruitment for the SWP on March 20 and said the program would remain suspended until Australia lifted its travel ban.

Ambassador Almeida said the Embassy had been working closely with its Australian counterparts to find a solution for Timorese workers still in the country, whose visas will likely expire before widespread travel restrictions and social distancing measures are lifted.

She said it was likely the Timorese workers would choose to extend, saying the embassy was “not aware” of any who wish to return home.

“The Embassy does understand that this situation has created uncertainty for Timorese workers, many miss their families and would prefer to be at home. However, these are unprecedented circumstances beyond our control,” she said.

Anyone trying to return to Timor-Leste will meet significant challenges. First, Timor’s transport regulator AACTL has suspended international flights in and out of the country to avoid adding the Timor’s single confirmed case of Covid-19.

And secondly, arrivals must enter 14 days mandatory quarantine. Hundreds of SWP workers have already flown home in the past two weeks, adding to the already bulging accommodation sites. Some 923 people are housed in sites across Dili alone.

“Having workers remain in Australia would greatly ease the pressure on [the] Timorese Government to prepare places for quarantine, which are very limited, if they were to return,” Ms Almeida said.

Workers will be able to stay up to 12 months under changes announced on April 4 (Image/Aus Gov)

There are some 7,000 SWP participants currently in Australia from Timor-Leste and countries in the South Pacific. The President of the National Farmers Federation, Fiona Simpson, said the labour they provide is crucial.

“Without international workers many farmers would be forced to leave produce to simply rot and die,” she said in a statement.

Journalist: Robert Baird

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