The agricultural industry says the federal government’s new rules for this fruitpicking harvest will get more backpackers working on Australian farms and help to solve labour shortages for this season.
But they’re warning the Coalition not to forget long term reform is needed for a long-term fix for their workforce shortages.
All primary industry struggles with workforce shortages and has called for a new visa category to reduce the cost and red tape for prospective migrant workers to come to Australia, particularity those from SE Asia from a farming background.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced today the annual backpacker intake would be increased under the Working Holiday Maker visa, workers can also extend their stay with one employer from six to 12 months and there is now the option to extend the visa from two to three years.
The number of extra entrants under the WHM visa is yet to be determined and negotiations with partner countries is ongoing.
Scott Morrison told the National Farmers’ Federation congress in October that he supported the development of a new ag visa category.
Labor accused the Morrison Government of scrambling to fix a problem of its own making, pointing to the higher charges the Coalition government imposed on working holiday maker visas under the backpacker tax which in 2016.
Labor Agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon said Scott Morrison and Michael McCormack must immediately clarify the Government’s position on the ag visa.
Mr Fitzgibbon said the changes to backpacker rules suggest the agricultural visa “is dead in the water”.
The latest announcement is yet another thought bubble from the Prime Minister, Mr Fitzgibbon said.
National Farmers’ Federation president Fiona Simson welcomed the backpacker changes, but reminded the Prime Minister of a previous commitment he made at the organisations’ National Congress to deliver an ag visa prorgram.
“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.
“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.”
Ausveg chief executive James Whiteside said it was good to see government respond to his industry’s concerns with improvements to the visa programs.
“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,” Mr Whiteside said.
Cotton Australia general manager Michael Murray said the changes announced today were a step forward, although they will take time to filter through, and his organisation would continue to advocate for a dedicated agricultural visa.
“These latest visa changes will increase the attractiveness of working on a farm for overseas workers, which in turn will help our growers fill persistent gaps in their workforce,” Mr Murray said
“While the changes announced by the government are certainly welcome, we continue to advocate for a dedicated agricultural visa to be developed and implemented as a long-term, sustainable solution.”
Mr Morrison also announced $1.5 million in funding towards the Fair Farms initiative, which is an industry-led code of practice for workforce compliance with employment laws.
Growcom chief advocate Rachel Mackenzie said her industry has zero tolerance for worker exploitation would give good growers the tools to differentiate themselves in the market place.
Ms Mackenzie said it was hard to judge the new scheme until the numbers involved in the new backpacker intake are revealed, “but it sounds like we’re well on the way to managing our workforce issues”.
"In particular we are pleased to see reforms to the Seasonal Worker Program, the work and holiday visa (462) and the working holiday visa (417) which will give growers access to a larger pool of workers over a longer period of time.
"We see these announcements as the beginning of a conversation on how to improve visa settings, whilst at the same time ensuring that all workers are treated appropriately.
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.