NFF appeals to Federal Government to bring back backpackers, Working Holiday Maker program

October 29th, 2020 | | backpacker

Farmers and tourism operators have written to the Federal Government pleading for backpackers to be allowed into Australia to harvest crops, care for children and travel.

Key points:

  • A report says the fruit and vegetable industry value will fall by $6.3 billion without backpackers to help harvest
  • Tourism and industry groups have proposed a COVID-safe plan that they say will allow backpackers to work on farms and as au pairs
  • The Department of Agriculture is unsure how big the on-farm worker shortage is, but one report estimates a 26,000 shortfall

It comes as department officials struggle to pinpoint labour shortages this summer and almost 30,000 Australians who are stranded overseas cannot get home.

The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) has teamed up with Backpacker Youth Tourism Advisory Panel (BYTAP) to call for an urgent re-start to the Working Holiday Maker program.

The number of backpackers in Australia has halved since international borders closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 earlier this year, creating a potential shortfall of more than 20,000 working holiday-makers.

In an appeal sent to about 30 federal politicians, the NFF and the advisory panel argued backpackers should be permitted to enter Australia under a COVID-safe plan to work as au pairs and harvest labourers, and to travel to boost the struggling tourism industry.

A backpackers stands in an apple orchard in Manjimup, WA.
Covid-19 restrictions mean there are fewer backpackers in Australia to harvest crops this year.(ABC Rural: Jon Daly)

NFF chief executive Tony Mahar said backpackers typically made up 80 per cent of farm labour. 

“A recent report detailed that without access to working holiday-makers, the fresh fruit and vegetable industry may suffer a $6.3 billion reduction in value and the cost of produce could increase by 60 per cent,” he said.

Backpacker Youth Tourism Advisory Panel spokeswoman Wendi Aylward said backpackers contributed $3.2 billion to the economy each year.

“Each working holiday-maker brings $5,000 with them as a visa requirement [and] spends $10,300 during their stay,” she said.

“[That’s] compared to $687 per trip that Australians spend domestically and $474 spent by Australian youth domestically.”

Shortfall of ‘26,000 workers’

Industry groups have been working on the proposal for some months and want backpackers from countries with low COVID-19 infection rates, under a strict testing regime, to be allowed to enter and quarantine in Australia before commencing work or travel.

Under its pilot proposal, the NFF and the advisory panel want visa fees to subsidise the cost of COVID-19 testing, and they have called for the Federal Government to consider offsetting the costs of quarantine with the 15 per cent backpacker tax or superannuation earned by working holiday-makers. 

A recent report commissioned by Hort Innovation estimated the industry would fall short of 26,000 workers this summer.

A drone photo of carrots being harvested.
The NFF says backpackers make up 80 per cent of the country’s farm labour.(ABC Open: Genevieve Windley)

But under questioning at a Senate estimates hearing in Canberra on Wednesday, Department of Agriculture officials struggled to confirm the shortfall when asked if the 26,000 figure was “accurate”. 

Department Secretary Andrew Metcalfe told the committee he had not read the report prepared by his former employer Ernst and Young, for the horticulture industry.

A written statement was later provided to the hearing.

It said government analysts at the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARES) had undertaken work to determine the labour shortage, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Labour use in agriculture typically increases from around 315,000 workers in September to a peak of close to 354,000 in February,” the statement said. 

“Labour use remains high in March and April before falling back to around 310,000 in May .

Farm work
Backpackers are relied on for seasonal picking work in regional Australia.(ABC Rural: Charlie McKillop)

“ABARES analysis shows that between September and February the use of overseas workers in agriculture increases by around 20,000.

“The extent that we don’t have overseas workers coming into Australia to meet this demand, this could represent the gap.”

Australia’s unemployment rate is expected to reach its highest level in decades,

Under the NFF’s proposal, all farm jobs would be subject to market testing.

In July, the Government approved plans to allow people from Pacific nations to enter Australia to work on farms. 

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud expects up to 4,000 workers could arrive under the Seasonal Worker Trial this year.

So far, just 300 workers have arrived from Vanuatu to pick mangoesin the Northern Territory.

Source: ABC

Sourced by Mike Barrow