Migrant services need funding ahead of Thomas Foods International re-opening, parliamentary committee hears in Murray Bridge

Federal MP Maria Vamvakinou, committee secretary James Bunce and MP Julian Leeser listen to Thomas Foods International's David McKay at a parliamentary hearing in Murray Bridge on Tuesday. Photo: Peri Strathearn.
Federal MP Maria Vamvakinou, committee secretary James Bunce and MP Julian Leeser listen to Thomas Foods International's David McKay at a parliamentary hearing in Murray Bridge on Tuesday. Photo: Peri Strathearn.

Migrant services will need more funding to cope with the hundreds of new families expected in Murray Bridge when Thomas Foods International (TFI) re-opens.

A parliamentary hearing has heard that the need for services provided by the Murraylands Migrant Resource Centre will increase "significantly" in late 2020 or 2021, when 2000 jobs will be created at the company's new meat works.

At present the equivalent of just 1.5 full-time social workers and volunteers were available to help new arrivals with transport, education, housing, health and language skills, Murray Bridge Multicultural Network chair John Scarvelis said.

Chief operating officer David McKay said TFI could support its employees in the workplace, but organisations such as the migrant resource centre needed to do the same within the community.

"(Migrant services) need to be supported, they need to be resourced," he said.

"People need to be comfortable, they need to be confident and they need to be settled, and that enables that workforce in that regional area to grow."

Migrant workers would be essential to the new plant, he said, as there were simply not enough locals to fill the jobs.

"We want to work with our schools, all the community groups (and) other employers and do all we can to get locals into our businesses, but there are only so many locals," he said.

Besides, local young people were unwilling to get out of bed early or sacrifice leisure time for a job at the meat works, he suggested; and schools focused too closely on preparing students for university instead of local job opportunities that did not require a degree.

Yet TFI's use of migrants to fill entry-level jobs enabled locals to climb the corporate ladder more quickly, he argued.

Migrant workers benefited from the job security they enjoyed and were able to work towards permanent residency.

Targeting large groups of people from particular communities, such as Koreans and Taiwanese, also helped those workers feel at home, Mr McKay said.

Ultimately he and Mr Scarvelis both hoped the hundreds or thousands of newcomers to Murray Bridge would choose to stay and become Australian citizens.

Council chief executive Michael Sedgman echoed that sentiment.

Residential developments at Gifford Hill, the old racecourse and elsewhere would be "more than sufficient" to house workers and their families, he said.

A number of houses had also remained vacant since the TFI fire in 2018, council planner Michael Shillabeer added.

Each speaker at Tuesday's hearing also said getting Murray Bridge's long-term unemployed residents into work was important.

That would mean equipping them with the skills needed to work in agriculture, food processing, disability services, aged care and other industries.

The local unemployment rate has typically been higher than the state average in recent years, despite large employers' reliance on migrant workers to fill vacant jobs.

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