The federal government is tweaking existing schemes to fix the holes in the farm labour workforce, increasing the annual backpacker intake to fill fruitpicking jobs, after the Nationals failed to convince their Coalition partner to create a new agricultural visa.
The Horticulture industry lists chronic labour shortages as its biggest issue, arguing existing worker migration schemes leave small farmers in particular short-staffed.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced today the annual backpacker intake would be increased, under the Working Holiday Maker visa, to improve availability of fruit picking labour as harvest approaches.
However, the number of extra entrants uncer the WHM visa is yet to be determined and negotiations with partner countries is ongoing.
Today’s announcement is the government’s third go at ag workforce policy this year.
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The Nationals push for a new ag visa, prior to harvest this year, hit a hurdle when Cabinet raised concerns about the impact on the Seasonal Worker Program.
In November, Mr Morrison floated the idea of linking farm labour vacancies with welfare payments, so recipients who turned down a job offer without a reasonable excuse would lose their payments for up to four weeks.
Industry slammed the PM’s plan, arguing that unfilled fruit and vegetable work was unattractive and unsuited to permanent Australian residents, as it is typically short term, seasonally sporadic and requires significant travel as harvest rolled across the country.
The WHM visa subcategory 417 and 462 age limit for working holiday makers will be extended from 30 to 35 years.
Workers can now stay with an employer twelve months, up from six, and visa holders can now undertake plant and animal cultivation work in additional priority areas to become eligible for a second visa.
There is also an option to extend the visa from two to three years, from July 1 2019, for workers who complete 6 months of regional work in the second year.
The government said the backpacker visa changes are contingent on a “strict workforce test” that ensures Australian workers are given the first opportunity for work.
Changes to the Seasonal Worker Program, for Pacific Island nations, include an increase to the work period from six to nine months and a reduction to employers expenses - where workers repay their full travel costs except for the first $300, which is a reduction from the previous $500.
Under this scheme workers from these countries must be provided a minimum average of 30 hours per week for up to six months.
But only larger horticultural companies, with long-term harvest demands, tend benefit from the Pacific Island worker schemes.
Smaller farmers, with smaller picking requirements, cannot guarantee work for extended periods.
The government said it would increase labour market testing prior to recruiting workers from three to six months.
National Farmers Federation President Fiona Simson welcomed the announcement, and took the opportunity to remind the PM a dedicated ag visa was still on the wishlist.
"The changes will make it easier for farmers to source and retain the workers they need,’ Ms Simson said.
Earlier this month Mr Morrison told the NFF National Congress that he backed the ag visa but he needed more information.
“The NFF is pleased to have the Prime Minister’s support for a dedicated Agricultural Visa and we will continue to work with the Parliament to see the initiative become a reality,” Ms Simson said today.
“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,” Ms Simson said.
Under this scheme workers from these countries must be provided