Des­per­ate for ag work­ers

Sen­a­tor ques­tions the need for new work visa

Warwick Daily News - South West Queensland Rural Weekly - - News - Natalie Kot­sios news@ru­ral­weekly.com.au

EX­IST­ING agri­cul­tural work visa schemes could be ex­panded as the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment scram­bles to help farm­ers find enough work­ers for the com­ing har­vest.

It is un­der­stood the Gov­ern­ment is look­ing at short-term op­tions to help ad­dress the cur­rent labour short­age, as an agri­cul­ture­spe­cific visa looks to be com­pletely off the ta­ble.

While in­dus­try had hoped an ag-spe­cific visa was pend­ing, for­mer as­sis­tant agri­cul­ture min­is­ter Anne Rus­ton this week ques­tioned whether an­other visa was needed at all.

Sen­a­tor Rus­ton, now Min­is­ter for the Pa­cific, pointed to the sea­sonal worker pro­gram and the re­cently opened Pa­cific labour scheme as “two very good, largely agri­cul­tur­ally fo­cused visas that are avail­able to the agri­cul­tural sec­tor”.

“Let’s have a look at that be­fore we just go throw­ing a new visa onto the ta­ble,” Sen­a­tor Rus­ton told ABC’s Coun­try Hour.

“A new ag visa, even if it was to be pro­gressed right now, is not go­ing to be avail­able this sea­son, whereas these ex­ist­ing pro­grams are.”

While the sea­sonal worker pro­gram sup­plies about 8500 Pa­cific Is­land hor­ti­cul­ture work­ers each year, the Pa­cific labour scheme is aimed at other in­dus­tries ex­pe­ri­enc­ing skills shortages in re­gional Aus­tralia and could pro­vide about 2000 work­ers.

Es­ti­mates put the agri­cul­tural labour short­age at up to 100,000.

The Na­tional Farm­ers’ Fed­er­a­tion has pre­vi­ously said the ex­ist­ing schemes do not meet agri­cul­ture’s needs, as they are de­signed as for­eign aid pro­grams first and fore­most.

De­bate on the ag-spe­cific visa has re­vealed ten­sions within the gov­ern­ment, with sev­eral se­nior Lib­er­als op­posed to the Na­tion­als-led push, ar­gu­ing it could threaten Aus­tralia’s strate­gic re­la­tion­ship with the Pa­cific, which is un­der­pinned by labour mo­bil­ity.

Agri­cul­ture Min­is­ter David Lit­tleproud – who re­peat­edly said he wanted an ag visa in place this year – must now find a new so­lu­tion to ad­dress the worker short­age.

It’s un­der­stood this could in­clude ex­pand­ing the sea­sonal worker pro­gram to more coun­tries and ex­tend­ing work­ing hol­i­day­mak­ers’ stays from two years to three years if they un­der­take agri­cul­tural work.

How­ever, fig­ures show back­packer num­bers are in de­cline, while the Depart­ment of Home Af­fairs knocked back

8000 ap­pli­ca­tions in the year

2017-18.

It was last week re­ported in­dus­try wants, at a min­i­mum, for the sea­sonal work pro­gram par­tic­i­pants to be able to move from farm to farm, to open the scheme to smaller grow­ers, and for back­pack­ers to be able to stay at one em­ployer for longer than six months.

❝A new ag visa, even if it was to be pro­gressed right now, is not go­ing to be avail­able this sea­son.

— Sen­a­tor Anne Rus­ton

PHOTO: CON­TRIB­UTED

AG VISA: The Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment may ex­pand ex­ist­ing agri­cul­tural work visas as the in­dus­try scram­bles to find farm work­ers be­fore har­vest.

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