First it was a pipedream. Then it was a definite goer to be announced within weeks. Now the new class of visa for farm workers has been shelved indefinitely.
The ag visa was a plan pushed by the National Party to reduce restrictions on foreign workers in an effort to fill chronic workforce gaps in the farm sector, particularly in seasonal unskilled labour.
Last month Nationals Leader Michael McCormack, fresh from renegotiating the confidential Coalition agreement with new PM Scott Morrison, set the stage for swift delivery.
Days later, the policy’s chief protagonist in parliament Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the ag visa was just weeks away.
“I’m committed to delivering it this season as I promised and I’m confident I’m close, with consultation with immigration and workforce ministers.”
But they spoke too soon. The government has reacted to international concerns and Fairfax Agricultural Media understands there will be no ag visa in the near future.
An announcement was abandoned after concerns were raised by Pacific Island nations that the ag visa would disrupt their existing seasonal worker programs.
Workers from these countries make a substantial contribution to their local economies, earning a collective $150 million a year in wages from annual seasonal work.
It is likely that South East Asian workers would comprise the majority of initial beneficiaries from an ag visa.
The Australian Farm Institute put the annual shortage of farm workers at 100,000 – with the vast majority of the shortfall in manual labour in horticultural harvesting as well as in shearing, meat processing and other industries.
The National Farmers’ Federation said the ag visa was a critical issue for family and corporate farm enterprises alike.
Outside the Pacific worker programs, unskilled workers are hampered by the cost and red tape of the existing visa program.
The NFF wants the ag visa to include an accreditation scheme for employers, to combat exploitation of vulnerable foreign workers.
It has argued for the ag visa to last for 6 to 9 months, reduce application fees, cut the application paperwork and permit workers to move between employers in that time.
The NFF said for the farm sector to reach its goal and grow to $100 billion by 2030 and additional 24,000 workers would be required.
While seasonal, unskilled workers are the NFF’s main focus, the lobby group has identified a need for skilled workers such as agronomists, stock handlers and farm managers.
The visa for skilled farm workers could offer two or three year terms with a system to transfer eligible people to permanent residency.
Mr McCormack said the government was continuing to pursue solutions to farm worker shortages.
“We are committed to ensuring we have the right processes in place to fill current gaps in the farm labour workforce… while ensuring we protect the current visa process which allows entry for the Pacific Islander workforce,” he said.
The NFF said it was “disappointed that an ag visa has not been progressed”.
“Ultimately, we continue to press for a tailored answer which has the key features which industry needs to thrive,” NFF said in a statement.
“We need a system which addresses the sector’s labour challenges without creating new challenges in their place.”