SENATOR Richard Colbeck says a new visa category for unskilled farm labour is not needed to fill the workforce shortages which industry says is crippling industry growth.
“When you start looking at the specifics of labour supply, I don’t think a specific ag visa works. It’s too multifacedted,” Mr Colbeck said this week at the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences Outlook conference.
“The sources of labour are broad and therefore you need to have a range of visa and local employment options to provide the labour resources required and I think quite frankly you’re doing a disservice by narrowing it down to just an ag visa.”
The declaration from Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources contradicts the most recent comments from the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, who said in October there was “no doubt” the government would develop an ag visa.
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Mr Morrison told the National Farmers Federation National Congress that he would deliver an ag visa if the horticulture sector could provide detailed date to demonstrate specific workforce needs.
“We support moving toward an ag visa - there's never been any question about that. But we have to go about it in the right way, It’s not a silver bullet to solve any problems in the forthcoming harvest,” he said.
Victorian Farmers Federation vice-president and vegetable grower, Emma Germano, said that the government’s gains on export market access are irrelevant if horticulture workforce shortages aren’t fixed.
“(Free trade agreements) are just excellent, but they don’t mean anything when the government is stopping table grapes getting to market because they can’t get picked because there isn’t labour,” Ms Germano said.
Despite recent reforms, the horticulture sector lists workforce shortages as its most pressing concern.
Last year the government increased the age limit and period under the Working Holiday Maker visa.
The age limit rose from 30 to 35 years, and workers can now stay with an employer 12 months, up from six.
Also, visa holders can now undertake plant and animal cultivation work in additional priority areas to become eligible for a second visa and there is an option to extend the visa from two to three years, from July 1 2019, for workers who complete six months of regional work in the second year.
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The government also announced changes to the Seasonal Worker Program for Pacific Island nations.
The permitted work period rose from six to nine months and employers expenses were reduced - where workers repay their full travel costs except for the first $300, which is a reduction from the previous $500.
The Seasonal Worker program is restricted to unskilled labour and is run by the Department of Jobs.
Lastly, the government extended the Pacific Labour Scheme from the six countries it is open to, including Tonga and opening discussions with Papua New Guinea to join as well.
The scheme has been uncapped and the current limit of 2000 places for migrant workers removed.
The Pacific Labour scheme is targeted at semi-skilled labour and migrants can work for three years in Australia under the program. It is run by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.