Paying it forward: meet the Sri Lankan migrant helping farmers get the workers they need

Helping struggling Victorian farmers recruit and retain thousands of workers during harvest is keeping Del Delpitiya busy during the pandemic.

Del Delpitiya, 46, is an Australian success story.

Migrating from Sri Lanka a decade back with just $5000 to his name, mainly in search of better educational prospects for his children, he and his family have gone on to create a new, prosperous life in Gippsland and he “hasn’t looked back”.

Rather, Del is now paying it forward.

The former Sri Lankan tea plantation manager – who on arrival in Australia became a farm hand, manager and then share farmer for a 400-head dairy in Cudgewa supplying milk to Murray Goulburn – is working as one of Agriculture Victoria’s Seasonal Workforce Coordinators.

“It’s time to give back to the industry and rural and regional Victoria,” Del reflects, conceding that although it’s a demanding position it’s one he adores. “This is one job where I can go to sleep thinking, ‘I have helped someone today’. You can’t buy that satisfaction; you have to work for it and earn it.”

The role, which he took on in October last year, involves helping to match linguistically diverse job seekers with the horticultural industry, managing harvest workforce shortages for jobs such as fruit and vegetable picking, packing, plus forklift and tractor driving.

The Seasonal Workforce Coordinators are working on the ground in Greater Sunraysia (including Mildura, Robinvale, Swan Hill) the Goulburn Murray (including Greater Shepparton, Moira and Campaspe) South East and Gippsland (including outer Melbourne, Wellington) and the South West (including Werribee and the Grampians).

They are part of the Victorian Government’s comprehensive $76 million package to support farmers as they meet the ongoing challenges of workforce shortages brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. Included in this support are programs such as the Seasonal Harvest Sign-On Bonus, the co-contribution to Pacific workers arriving in Victoria, more than $3.1 million for the Seasonal Workforce Accommodation Program and nearly $1 million for the Seasonal Workforce Industry Support Program. The Seasonal Workforce Coordinators have played a part in all of these programs, supporting farm business and employers to secure the workforce it needs.

Farm businesses and employers are finding workers of all ages, backgrounds, language capabilities and skillsets through the program, with Del organising farm visits for potential jobseekers and promoting harvest opportunities at community information sessions with language interpreters present and translated material available.

“New and emerging communities to Victoria are keen to work in agriculture but may not be aware of the opportunities, such as the communities migrating from Myanmar (Falam Chin, Mizo, Chin, Zo and Karen),” says Del.

He also liaises with those who have already been engaged in the seasonal workforce and want to pursue a career in agriculture, such as Punjabi, Filipino, Thai and Vietnamese communities.

As well, Del’s role sees him help find jobs for international students, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who are settled in Victoria and may not be aware of opportunities in agricultural seasonal work such as the South Sudanese community in Melbourne’s north.

“The employers are only asking for basic functional English and a good attitude, and you don’t have to look far to find many seasonal workers returning every year, earning and saving and some even taking up careers in the workplace,” he adds. “It’s a rewarding industry to work and bring up your children in. Regional Victoria has a lot to offer. ‘Adopt, adjust and acclimatise as a family unit’ is my message to those looking for opportunities in Victorian agriculture.”