Farmers want AG Visa but what about the WHV?October 17th, 2018 | | 88 days
Fruit and vegetable growers say a lack of workers is keeping a lid on industry growth and leaving hundreds of tonnes of fruit at risk of being left on the ground every year.
Many are hoping a promised ‘agricultural visa’ for foreign farm workers will solve industry labour woes by allowing farms to hire a dedicated overseas workforce on a temporary basis.
In late August the National Party promised the visa would be delivered in “days, not weeks”, forcing senior Liberals to put the plan on ice saying it would cause diplomatic problems with governments in the Pacific.
The industry already has access to an existing scheme, the Seasonal Worker Program (SWP), designed to allow farmers to bring workers in from the Pacific and Timor Leste.
Leaders in those countries fear a new ‘ag visa’ would stifle opportunities for their people if farmers were to move away from the SWP.
What does the new visa promise in comparison?
Figures from the Department of Jobs and Small Business show 6,166 workers entered Australia on the SWP in 2016/17, and 4,402 had entered between July 2017 and January 2018.
But for Northern Territory farmer Ian Quinn, that scheme was too rigid and inflexible for the often unpredictable nature of harvest time.
“Anything would be better than a Seasonal Workers Program. Anything,” he said.
Farmers hope the new ‘ag visa’ would be flexible enough to allow workers to return year-on-year, for say three to five years, before renewal was needed.
Mr Quinn has more than 35,000 mango trees, all of which need to be harvested between August and November.
During that period his staff goes from seven to, ideally, 70 people.
“We are never going to get labour security with an Australian workforce because there is no attraction for young people, there is no career path picking seasonal fruit,” Mr Quinn said.
Seasonal Worker Program inflexible
Farmers say many of the existing programs for hiring backpackers and overseas workers are too rigid and bureaucratic.
Despite being successful for Mr Quinn in securing workers from Timor Leste through the SWP, he said there were very real administrative problems with that program.
“You get knockbacks for trivial things like [using] portable toilets, they [the department who oversees the applications] wouldn’t accept that for the packing season.
“Even when we were successful we didn’t know we were going to get our staff until three weeks before we needed them.”
The laborious application process was just one of the faults farmers reported about the Seasonal Worker Program.
“So we may as well employ backpackers then,” Mr Quinn said.
The SWP also has strict rules around the dates workers can work.
Claims ag visa would provide needed flexibility
There are concerns that the introduction of an ag visa would cease opportunities for the Pacific nations part of the existing SWP.
“We currently have return workers from Timor Leste on our farm and we would certainly still want them back, otherwise we’ve wasted three years training them,” Mr Quinn said.
“We would bring them back, say, for two months after the harvest for pruning.
“Last year we tried to keep [some of the seasonal workers] on for a given period to do pruning … but we couldn’t, so we ended up pruning at the wrong time of the year while we still had them and it has cost us in poor fruit and broken branches.
“We would like to send them home for a couple of months, freshen them up and get them back at the right time.”
Calls for caution in dismantling SWP
Not everyone is convinced a new visa will be a panacea for the industry’s labour woes, suggesting the SWP could be amended.
Citrus Australia CEO Ben Cant said he feared the Government had not consulted with industry enough.
“I’m concerned that what’s transpiring is short-term politics … coming up with a quick win for politics to demonstrate they’re satisfying growers’ needs,” Mr Cant said.
Australian National University’s director of the Development Policy Centre, Stephen Howes, said he believed the existing options for farmers could be made more flexible, and a new visa was not needed.
“The idea that we now need a new visa to bring in skilled labour doesn’t make much sense because we already have the 457 temporary skilled visa”
“We already have a number of visas, so what is the gap that a new visa is meant to fill? That is as unclear now as when the issue first arose.”
Ag visa ‘would allow expansion’
With pressure on Australian farmers to increase their productivity to feed the world’s growing population, some say an agriculture visa is needed now more than ever.
“An ag visa would allow us to expand with confidence because we’ve got the infrastructure here, we’ve got the land, and many farmers around Australia — not just in the tropics — would be able to expand,” Mr Quinn said.
“If we know we’re going to have 40 people on such-and-such a day, or 60, or 100 people on such-and-such a day, who can come back and work on limited supervision, we can make plans and get things done.
ED: With the introduction of an ag visa, what will happen to the WHV second year pickers trying to obtain their 88 days?
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Sourced and edited: Mike Barrow