Labouring on the AG Visa Debate

labouring-on-the-ag-visa-debate

Date of publication:  25 Jan 2019

What does a Chinese reality TV dating show in Rockingham have to do with WA farmers? I’m glad you asked. Right now, our farmers are relying on WA’s tourism industry to fill the gaps in our unskilled labour force. Young folks from all over the globe on working holidays are getting unskilled jobs done in the short term, but their visas come with age and time restrictions.

There has been uncertainty over fixing the rural workforce shortage since the agricultural industry endured the turmoil of the proposed 2016 15% Backpacker Tax. A political deal within a deal between the Greens and the Liberals which like all too clever by half cosy-ups fell over. Since then, industry has had to witness attempts from the current government trying to retrofit the existing visa framework to suit the labour demands of the agricultural industry. While WAFarmers acknowledges the most recent visa changes do make some in-roads; there is still strong demand for a dedicated agricultural visa.

But you can’t have a problem without offering a solution and WAFarmers supported a strong one in the 2018 National Farmers’ Federation submission to the Home Affairs Department inquiry into visa simplification. Our solution is simple; the creation of a specialist agricultural category with two streams.

A short term (6 to 12 month) visa could be set up to encourage seasonal and unskilled workers (otherwise known as tourists or backpackers), who would be able to return yearly for harvest and a longer-term category for skilled workers which could include everyone from stock handlers to farm managers.

Nearly 12 months ago there was speculation that a dedicated ag-visa would be announced in the May Budget, but that didn’t materialise. Then again, late last year there was another attempt to introduce the ag-visa but it got hijacked by an alternative Australian workers first proposal, aimed at matching local job seekers on welfare benefits with rural job opportunities.

We know that many farming businesses want to employ local people wherever possible, but the reality is that due to the seasonal nature of the industry and the welfare system in Australia, there is a major disincentive for Aussie residents to chase regional casual work.

While the more menial tasks like fruit picking and clearing out shearing sheds are often being taken care of by backpackers, there is an increasing demand for people with specific skills to operate complex machinery on broadacre farms during peak season.  Ideally, once these people are trained up, they can come back year after year. They could be from Eastern Europe, the Philippines or from South Africa and they could come for three month stints over seeding and harvest. These are the workers of tomorrow that our industry needs as we struggle to find labour in rapidly shrinking country towns.

Canberra is not keeping pace with what’s happening on farms and as a result we have not seen any real progress on the ag-visa situation. It seems unions are moving rapidly to make it even harder to find backpackers. This week we saw yet another announcement at the federal level around farmworkers’ visas as the unions have put forward a policy to halve the number of backpacker workers with a plan to cut working holiday visas in half, down from two years to one. But if you think of it this way, during the mining and resources boom 457 visas paved the way for an influx of skilled and unskilled workers to fill the gaps in the industry – so why is the agricultural industry any different? It does after all, literally put food on the table. The reality is without a sustainable source of seasonal workers, fruit will be left on the trees.

Back to the simplest of solutions, a dedicated foreign ag-visa which frees up restrictions for skilled and unskilled workers to fill gaping holes in the farm workforce. That can only strengthen agribusinesses and help to create more full-time positions for local residents who want to live and work in regional WA.

And let’s not go back down the path of forcing new Australians and the unemployed to live in rural areas. It is not only unenforceable, but also dismissive of the needs of farm businesses and rural communities, and dare I say it, impinges on individuals’ rights.

Any political solution that is not based on a dedicated ag-visa is a non-starter, but looking at the latest idea from the unions, it looks as if the ALP and their union alliance want to go backwards and make it even harder for farmers to manage seasonal labour demands.

Put simply, agribusiness is experiencing a seasonal workforce drought and both sides of government are capable of doing something to make it rain.

Trevor Whittington

CEO WAFarmers

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