NATIONAL Farmers Federation (NFF) CEO Tony Mahar says the 457 foreign worker visa’s demise is no disaster for the farm sector - but he has stopped short of welcoming the creation of a new temporary skills shortage visa to replace it.
Today, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull revealed the Coalition government would abolish the subclass 457 foreign workers’ visa and introduce a new temporary visa program restricted to filling critical skills shortages.
“This will ensure Australian workers are given the absolute first priority for jobs, while businesses will be able to temporarily access the critical skills they need to grow if skilled Australians workers are not available,” he said in a statement.
Mr Turnbull said the new visa program would comprise a short term and medium term stream and be underpinned by more focused occupation lists that are responsive to genuine skill needs and regional variations across Australia.
He said short term visas would be issued for two years, while medium term visas would be issued only for more critical skills shortages and for up to four years.
Both streams will include mandatory labour market testing with limited exemptions; a new non-discriminatory workforce test; mandatory criminal history checks; a market salary rate assessment and a new two-year work experience requirement, he said.
Mr Mahar said the Prime Minister’s announcement of the 457 visa’s demise “is not disastrous for the farm sector” as it did little to facilitate farmers’ access to the skills they required, with shearers the only farm role included.
He said access to skilled workers was essential to the continued growth and productivity of Australian agriculture but unfortunately critical skill shortages existed across many farm industries.
Mr Mahar said overseas workers were important in meeting the shortages but farmers have had longstanding issues with access to the 457 visa program.
He said the current program didn’t recognise many skills Australian farmers required; largely because many occupations have had their skill levels classified too low to meet the required threshold.
“The reality is that in farming, much of the training is done on-the-job and experience is valued more highly than tertiary qualifications,” he said.
NFF said labour agreements had been negotiated in the pork and dairy industries to overcome barriers to access 457 visas for a senior stockperson (piggery) and senior dairy cattle farm worker roles respectively.
However this process was not preferable with negotiating labour agreements a time consuming and resource intensive process.
But Mr Mahar said more detail on the government’s new visa program was now required before the NFF could welcome today’s announcement by Mr Turnbull.
“It is definitely an opportunity to tailor a working visa program to assist agriculture’s workforce needs,” he said.
“As the peak representative body for Australian farming, we’d value an opportunity to consult with the government on the needs of the farm sector from a temporary visa program.”
NFF said it was believed there were currently less than five shearers working in Australia pursuant to a 457 visa.
Mr Turnbull said implementation of the new visa would begin immediately, with full implementation to be completed by March 2018.
It’s understood the subclass 457 foreign workers’ visa will be replaced in March 2018 as part of the policy implementation.
AUSVEG National Public Affairs Manager Jordan Brooke-Barnett said whether the new visa class helped to overcome farm labour shortages was largely dependent on what would replace the 457 visa, which was “flawed” because it had limited scope.
Mr Brooke-Barnett said the 457 visa was restricted to a small number of occupations but was used by some rural industries to employ farm managers or agronomists, where those businesses were unable to find locals to do the work.
But he said the number of workers operating under that program was relatively small - compared to those using the 417 working holiday-maker visa - but had still been “incredibly important to the regions”.
“If you don’t have farm managers or agronomists you lose agricultural output,” he said.
Mr Brooke-Barnett said AusVeg had previously argued to expand the list of occupations that the 457 visa scheme applied to.
He said the federal government had also provided little detail on the new visa category and once more information was known they would analyse any potential flow-on impacts, in areas like labour market testing.
But the government did provide a broader commitment to look after regional Australia in making its policy announcement today, he said.
“We hope the government does follow through on that commitment to better targeting the needs of regional Australia,” he said.
“It’s good to have that buffer in place (with the 457 visa program set to end in March 2018) but the government does need to move quickly to fill in the blanks on what the policy will look like.
“So long as the government keeps its mind on the needs of regional Australia and implements the new visa category efficiently, we’re hopeful we won’t see too many issues.”
The government’s policy announcement said concessions for regional Australia would continue to be available with employers having access to occupations under the temporary and permanent visas, to reflect their skills needs.
It said existing permanent visa concessions for regional Australia, such as waiving the nomination fee and providing age exemptions for certain occupations, would be retained and consideration would be given to expanding the occupations in regional Australia that are exempt from the age requirement.
Shadow Employment Minister Brendan O’Connor said on first inspection, the announcement looked like “a change in name instead of a change in policy”.
“We’ll seriously consider any proposal once the government releases all the details – but right now we’re concerned that Mr Turnbull is just rebadging the same visa system with the same dodgy loopholes - that isn’t good enough,” he said.
“Until he can guarantee that the existing dodgy loopholes will be closed for good, Australians will know they still can’t trust Malcolm Turnbull on jobs.
“We’ve been campaigning all across Australia for substantial changes to the visa system that really protect local jobs.
“The Turnbull government needs to clearly outline what protections will be in place to ensure jobs are advertised locally first, stringent labour market testing is undertaken and training opportunities are available to local workers.”
Acting CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Jenny Lambert said Australian businesses needed access to skills in order to grow and welcomed the replacement of the 457 visa.
“Public confidence in the skilled migration system is vital and this announcement will help to achieve that confidence,” she said.
“It is a chance to hit the ‘reset button’ on temporary skilled migration.