Labour woes worsen with new visa rules

1st July 2021 | Eativity editors

The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF), the Australian Banana Growers’ Council and Queensland industry bodies Growcom and AgForce have slammed new changes to the Working Holiday Maker visa conditions for backpackers – a move by Federal Immigration Minister Alex Hawke that will likely reduce the already critically limited workforce available to farmers in northern and remote Australia, and one that detractors say suggests the federal government is “totally divorced from farming reality”.

With little fanfare and no consultation with agriculture industry bodies, Minister Hawke last week quietly changed the rules for backpackers seeking to extend their Working Holiday Maker visa to second and third years, extending the 88 day “specified work” requirement for working holiday makers to include tourism and hospitality in northern, remote and very remote Australia – a change that will likely see less backpackers choose farm work.

Most backpackers would likely prefer to work in hospitality or tourism than on a farm.

“It’s inconceivable that the minister would make this decision with not so much as phone call to farm groups, let alone meaningful consultation with farmers, at a time when agriculture is dealing with an unprecedented worker shortage,” says NFF CEO Tony Mahar.

Growcom CEO Stephen Barnard says the change “defies logic” and runs counter to all available evidence, including analysis from the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries which found the Queensland horticulture sector is short by up to 9000 workers.

“The requirement to work on farm was there for a reason,” he says. “We won’t dispute the average backpacker would prefer to pour beers in Port Douglas than pick mangos in Mareeba. But now we’re going to see an exodus of workers from agriculture into pubs, clubs and restaurants right when we need them the most.”

Farm work might be tough, but it can provide once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Mahar says the NFF had been buoyed by a commitment from the Prime Minister and Agriculture Minister David Littleproud to establish an agriculture visa.

“We have big hopes for the ag visa, but there is a mountain of detail to be worked through before the visa is ready to deliver meaningful relief to farmers’ labour challenges,” he says.

“This latest decision is frustrating for farmers as it looks as if the government is trying to give with one hand and take with the other. We await more detail from Minister Hawke to explain what seems like a misguided and rash decision, to say the least.”

AgForce Chief Executive Michael Guerin says more detail around this decision is needed in order to fully understand the potential impacts.

“The consequences could be far-reaching if a loss of labour starts seriously limiting opportunities for growth and expansion in Queensland agriculture,” he says. “There are ongoing challenges in finding and retaining agricultural labour in rural and remote areas, and this shortage has been made much worse by the pandemic and travel restrictions.”

“We are calling on the minister to review his decision immediately, and for greater transparency moving forward on the basis for making changes to what is a long-running visa program upon which entire workforces have been predicated.”