Agriculture groups welcome ag visa while Labor says it's déjà vu

WORKING: The federal government has announced its intention to implement an agricultural visa by the end of September. Photo: Shutterstock.
WORKING: The federal government has announced its intention to implement an agricultural visa by the end of September. Photo: Shutterstock.

TOO little too late is how the federal opposition has described yesterday's announcement of an agriculture visa despite many agricultural groups heaping praise on the government for the iniative.

A joint statement from Labor's shadow minister for immigration and citizenship Senator Kristina Keneally, shadow minister for agriculture Julie Collins and shadow minister for international development Pat Conroy, said producers would have been "feeling a keen sense of déjà vu" with yet another announcement on an agriculture visa that "delivers nothing as crippling workforce shortages grow".

Labor blasted the ag visa's timing saying it won't mean one more worker makes it onto Australian farms this summer.

"The Morrison-Joyce Government's addiction to temporary visa holders has contributed to the exploitation of agriculture workers, not to mention wage suppression across the wider economy," the statement said.

It said there was no detail about how the ag visa would protect workers against exploitation.

"This new visa also has the potential to undermine key elements of the Pacific Step Up including the Seasonal Workers Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme at time when our relationship with the region has never been more important," it said.

By and large however, the ag sector welcomed federal agriculture minister David Littleproud's announcement that regulations to enable the creation of the Australian agriculture visa will be in place by the end of September 2021.

Among the praise for the announcement, most reiterated the time it had taken to get to this point, labelling it "long called for".

National Farmers' Federation president Fiona Simson said it was a significant step towards solving the farm sector's enduring workforce crisis with a bespoke visa designed to meet the industry's many and varied skill needs.

"There will be a sigh of relief from farmers from the very northern tip of our country to those in the most southerly parts of Tasmania."

"The start date is extremely good news for farmers across the nation who are right now struggling to know how they will harvest, pick and pack this year's crop," Ms Simson said.

"The onus is now on state and territory governments and their chief health officers to approve quarantine arrangements to safely house incoming foreign workers.

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National Irrigators' Council (NIC) chief executive officer Isaac Jeffrey said the federal government had listened to industry.

"Last season we saw fruit rotting and crops going unpicked as farmers struggled to hire a willing workforce," Mr Jeffrey said.

"This new visa is a welcomed and positive step to help our food and fibre producers avoid these shortfalls into the future.

"The ag visa will allow workers to come in and support our agriculture, meat processing, forestry and fisheries industries.

"It will help farmers and industry to capitalise on recent rains and good crop predictions, and work with confidence knowing they will be able to get the staff they need to run their farms.

"The visa will be available to a full spectrum of workers from low to highly skilled backgrounds to fill gaps in Australia's current workforce."

NSW Farmers Horticulture Committee chair Guy Gaeta described the ag vis as "just what we need for our sector".

"The horticulture industry has been calling for a dedicated and productive workforce to harvest and package fruit and vegetables for many years, so this announcement is great news," Mr Gaeta said.

"Last year we just managed to get through our harvest but now we're coming into harvest in September and we need people again - the whole industry needs people starting at the summer for six months."

"I do thank the Federal Agriculture Minister for his efforts in getting this up and running this year. It's important to get it started after recent changes to the Working Holiday Maker program developed as part of the UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement."

Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) president Emma Germano said it was a critical step towards ensuring the tens of thousands of current and upcoming positions on Victorian farms were filled.

"The success of the agriculture visa relies on high standards to be met by sponsoring employers to ensure the welfare of visa holder," Ms Germano said.

"The immediate issue is clearly the movement of workers across state borders for the upcoming harvest season.

"We typically see the movement of workers from north to south over the coming months, especially in our horticulture industry. The current border restrictions is going to cause real issues."

Ausveg CEO Michael Coote said the pandemic had exacerbated the industry's chronic labour shortage, which has been estimated to reach up to 24,000 harvest workers in early 2022 for the coming peak harvest season.

OPPOSITION: A screenshot of a Facebook post from Labor's Kristina Keneally regarding the ag visa.

OPPOSITION: A screenshot of a Facebook post from Labor's Kristina Keneally regarding the ag visa.

"The confirmation on the start date for the visa and the commitment to consult with industry is a welcome step towards securing an efficient and reliable workforce, with the agriculture visa an important mechanism to bring workers who want to work on our farms into the country," Mr Coote said.

"We now need countries to partner in the visa so that we can start bringing in workers from our neighbouring countries, which will not only help our businesses but workers and their communities significantly affected by the economic impacts of the pandemic."

He also urged state and federal governments to work together to come to a solution as the peak demand period quickly approaches.

Growcom chief executive Stephen Barnard said news of the government's commitment to the new visa would be a shot in the arm for growers looking to make long term investments in building their business.

"For many businesses in the Australian horticulture industry, labour is their most significant input and single most expensive cost of production," Mr Barnard said.

"With so much uncertainty around labour supply at the moment, business confidence across the sector had naturally taken a hit.

"Landing this new visa for Australian agriculture is putting in place an important piece in completing our long term labour puzzle."

But he said like any puzzle, determining the details of this visa piece are now going to be essential to ensure it fits neatly with existing pieces, and other pieces yet to be placed.

"With a likely loss of British backpackers looking for farm work as a result of the new UK Free Trade Agreement, the visa must be designed to meet both the need for workers to be flexible in terms of the jobs they're able to take up along the harvest trail in a way similar to the backpackers they're replacing, while also ensuring their employers meet public and industry expectations with regard their employment practices."

The Australian Fresh Produce Alliance chair Anthony Di Pietro said it was pleasing to see that the new Australian Agriculture visa seems to have taken into account that the agriculture sector has a variety of different workforce needs and is looking to accommodate all of these.

"In horticulture, we have a number of short term, highly seasonal roles that often see workers move to follow work," Mr Di Pietro said.

"This is different to other sectors, like meat processing, which may have work in the same processing facility throughout a year.

"The AFPA have consistently advocated that this visa must focus on ensuring compliance with employment standards to ensure worker welfare and will continue to support this as a key part of the visa's design."

Chair of Berries Australia Peter McPherson said the berry sector had been struggling to find harvest workers since the borders closed for COVID-19, so the ag visa announcement was greatly received.

"The $1.4 billion berry sector has a heavy reliance on manual pickers due to the soft nature of the fruit and whilst historically we have employed backpackers, a stream of dedicated workers who want to work in the sector is very welcome," Mr McPherson said.

"It is important to remember that these workers are creating jobs for Australians not taking them away as these pickers and packers mean we can employ more locals in longer term roles and they generate significant economic activity in regional communities."

"The Australian berry industry's priorities are that the visa has high standards to ensure worker welfare, and that workers have flexibility to move between growing regions and follow the harvest work."

"Berries Australia is committed to the ethical treatment of workers and many of our growers have ethical sourcing programs like Fair Farms or SEDEX in place. We also continue to call on the government to implement a national labour hire licensing scheme."

The Australian Forest Products Association (AFPA) CEO Ross Hampton also applauded the announcement.

"Like many industries across agriculture, forest industries also require the flexibility to onboard international workers in response to workforce shortages, including in activities like planting new production trees," Mr Hampton said.

"Australia is currently experiencing major timber supply constraints with peaking demand for new homes and renovations, constraints which will only worsen in the decades ahead if we don't get more production trees in the ground, under the Government's Billion Trees Plan.

"The increasing global demand for timber has also shown we can't rely on imports to fill the gap.

"The inclusion of the forestry sector under this visa will mean flexibility for the sector in hiring workers to boost the future supply of timber for houses and the array of sustainable fibre products increasingly replacing harmful plastics."

This story Labor labels ag visa 'too late' but industry welcomes move first appeared on Good Fruit & Vegetables.