Australia relaxes visa rules to promote agricultural labor

November 05 , 2018

Australian growers have welcomed a Federal Government move that looks set to incentivize backpacker and seasonal labor through initiatives to bring in more people and allow them to stay on farms for longer. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison held a press conference at Chambers Flat Strawberry Farm in Queensland yesterday (Nov. 5) to announce working holiday visa age limits would be lifted from 30 to 35, while those who spend six months or more working regionally in their second year would be eligible for a third-year visa.

Importantly, the measures - effective immediately - will allow workers to stay with an employer for up to a year, unlike the previous limit of six months. 

This change will help growers secure a more stable workforce, and among the beneficiaries will be Belinda Adams, director of Queensland producer advocacy group Growcom.

"It’s really fantastic to hear this news today because as an industry we need to have a sustainable workforce and we know that there’s lots of challenges surrounding that," Adams said.

"So to hear that we’re backing our local people into jobs as well as our visa opportunities, I myself run a small production site on the Gold Coast and we predominantly employ Working Holiday Visas as well as locals. So we’ve got about a 50/50 split.

"But to hear now that we’re going to be able to run out to 12 months with our staff, that’s fantastic news. Because with only six months we feel like we’re constantly having to train our staff. So employing locals is really important to our business as well, and then we’ve got obviously, our access to our visa staff to support the business."

Prime Minister Morrison also announced changes to the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP), which allows workers from Pacific Island nations and Timor Leste to live and work in Australia across multiple work periods.

"For the Seasonal Workers Program coming from the Pacific, we're extending it out from six months to nine months, cutting the cost down to $300 and we’re also reducing a lot of the paperwork that they have to do as well," Morrison said.

To attract more backpackers farms, Tourism Australia will be receiving AUD$5 million (US$3.6 million) over two years to "go out and further promote Australia to backpacker tourism".

"All of this is designed to support small, family medium-sized businesses working in regional areas all around the country," Morrison said.

"I want to see more than a billion dollars spent by backpackers in regional Australia. We're not quite at that mark yet, we’re around about (AUD)$920 million [US$663 million] or thereabouts."

Industry response

Australia's peak industry body for the vegetable and potato industry, Ausveg, welcomed the announcement.

"It’s great to see the government respond to calls for reform by making these improvements to the visa programs which are currently helping growers manage their labour issues,” said Ausveg CEO James Whiteside.

"Backpackers are an established source of labour for Australian farmers, and allowing them to work for longer periods at a single farm will help our growers retain a more stable workforce throughout the year," he said.

"Making it easier for growers to be a part of the SWP is a welcome improvement to a visa that’s already providing value to our growers and supporting our regional neighbours."

The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) commended the change to visa programs to more effectively meet the farm sector’s "chronic" labor shortage.

"Prime Minister Morrison has listened and is following through on his commitment to address agriculture’s workforce crisis," said NFF president Fiona Simson.

"The NFF and our members, in particular the NFF Horticulture Council, have led a united call for reform.

"For more than a year we have been dedicated to raising awareness of the issue, collecting the evidence we needed to make our case and crucially, proposing solutions."

She said the improvements to working holiday visas and SWP were a "direct result of this advocacy".

"The changes will make it easier for farmers to source and retain the workers they need," she said.

Apple and Pear Australia Limited (APAL) head of advocacy and grower relations Jeremy Griffith described the announcement as a "good first step".

"We’re pleased the government is listening, and we’d like to work towards flexibility for working conditions to make sure the industry has the workers it needs. That said, there is still a long way to go," Griffith said.

Voice of Horticulture chair Tania Chapman said the horticulture industry welcomed every opportunity to fill the huge labor void in the sector's workforce.

"It is a much better solution than forcing Australians to work in a job that they don’t want," Chapman said.

"At the end of the day, growers have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in their farms, and producing their crops, and they cannot afford to invest in people who are unable to do the work, or who are not interested in doing the work."

Chapman emphasized it wasn't just on farms that there was a skilled labor shortage, but as horticulture had boomed so too had opportunities along the supply chain.

"Whether that be in freight or logistics, in agronomic services or the many other industries that service and rely on horticulture - there are a lot of services that require labour," Chapman said.

"This really is a total win for Australia - a labour force available to harvest the Australian crops and ensure we all have fresh fruit and vegetables," she said, adding that exports also continued to grow while workers who spend their earnings in local communities are helping to boost the Australian economy.

Funding for Fair Farms

The government has also announced it will be supporting Growcom's Fair Farms initiative with AUD$1.5 million ($1.1 million) to roll out the program nationally.

Established through extensive consultation with national horticulture industry groups, the Fair Farms certification is a practical market recognition scheme for farm businesses to show their employment practices are up to standard.

The scheme includes a code of practice for employment laws and industry standards, online self-assessment, training options, and third-party auditing and certification if required. 

"Over and above the announcement of Fair Farms receiving $1.5 million to roll out their program nationally, is just such an exciting opportunity for us all," Adams said.

"As growers, we have zero tolerance for unethical employment and we really want to see the rest of the industry stand up and be accountable for the fantastic people that we get to work with on a daily basis.

"My crew at work are great people, they’re part of an extended family, we want them to have an enjoyable time, so all of the opportunities that have been announced today will allow that to happen. So we really are thankful that the Government has listened to us and has responded in such a quick and efficient way."

The NFF highlighted the funding would see an Industry Workforce Coordinator engaged for two years, and a further $9.9 million would expand the scope and reach of the Fair Work Ombudsman.

"The Fair Farms Initiative, aims to ensure that workers are treated fairly while they are employed on farm and in pack houses," Simson said.

Dedicated Agricultural Visa still on the cards

Ausveg is also positive about the funding boost for the initiative, and has reiterated its support for the dedicated Agricultural Visa proposed through the NFF Horticulture Council.

At the press conference, Prime Minister Morrison said the dedicated visa was a "longer term, medium term plan" that was still being worked out.

"The best worker on any farm is one who wants to be there, and these improvements to existing visa programs are a good step towards providing a more enthusiastic, engaged and reliable labour force for Australian agriculture,” Whiteside said.

“We’ll continue to work to get a dedicated Agricultural Visa that provides Australian growers with willing workers and ensures our produce reliably gets from the field to the supermarket shelf year in, year out.

“As part of this effort, growers should keep showing the government how important it is they get the workers they need, including by registering job vacancies with the National Harvest Labour Information Service."

Simson said the NFF was pleased to have the Prime Minister’s support for a dedicated Agricultural Visa, and would continue to work with the Parliament to see the initiative become a reality.

"The farm sector's labour crisis is not going away. Everyday, farmers, including fruit and vegetable growers, dairy farmers and grain producers, are struggling to find the workforce they need to get the job done,” Simson said.

“Produce is going unpicked and farm businesses' potential for growth is significantly constrained.

"For agriculture to achieve our vision of being a (AUD)$100 billion [US$72 billion] industry by 2030, the sector's people power problems must be solved."



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