Pressure on Nats over ag visa, again

Pressure on Nats over ag visa, again

Politics
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The industry campaign for a dedicated visa for agricultural workers is set to fire up once more

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The push for a dedicated agricultural visa is set to escalate as industry groups put the Nationals on notice over its promise to revisit the scheme after the federal election.

Nationals leader Michael McCormack has acknowledged the need for a rethink on migrant workers, but delivering on an ag visa will be challenging for the junior Coalition partner, which will have to convince a sceptical Prime Minister in Scott Morrison.

"While there have been a number of tweaks to a number of visas, there is still a shortage of labour in some of our rural and regional areas," said National Farmers' Federation president Fiona Simson.

"So yes, the decision needs to be on foot, we need to have the discussion again with this current parliament and we need to make sure we're providing labour options where it's needed most to pick and pack veggies and harvest crops when the need is there."

Mr McCormack said in April, in the lead up to the May 18 election, that migrant worker arrangements were a significant concern for the rural sector, and pledged "when we are re-elected we will revisit it".

However, Mr Morrison has indicated he is reluctant to introduce a new visa category, arguing reforms by the previous parliament to backpacker visas, the Seasonal Worker Program and the creation of a new Pacific Labour Scheme could be utilised to address the worker shortfalls.

Industry lobby groups argue a new ag visa could benefit workers and employers.

For employers, it could benefit smaller growers who struggle to attract workers under the current scheme with more flexible arrangements.

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Smaller farms have smaller crops and offer a smaller window of employment. A workforce recruited under an ag visa could be organised by the oversight body, which could send workers to where they were needed when the work was on.

Migrant workforce 

Under the current seasonal worker and Pacific labour schemes, employers are tasked with covering the upfront cost of workers, organising healthcare, airfares and accommodation.

An ag visa could shift these responsibilities to the regulator which would ensure workers' needs are met, and that employers are accredited under the scheme.

Worker exploitation was a key concern of the Migrant Workers' Taskforce report, published in March and chaired by former ACCC boss Allan Fels. It called for a national labour hire registration scheme to weed out employers who provided substandard conditions.

The federal government has made a number of changes to migrant worker programs in the past two years.

Scott Morrison says the programs need time to work, while the agriculture sector says it already knows more is needed to fix its workplace shortage.

A new Pacific Labour scheme was created in 2018, motivated by boosting diplomatic ties with our neighbours. It's targeted at semi-skilled labour and migrants can work for three years in Australia under the program. It attracted 200 workers in its first year, and the Department said it could grow over time.

The Seasonal Worker Program, also for Pacific Island nations, was formed under the previous Labour government. It was expanded last year and the work period extended from six to nine months.

Employer expenses have been 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 allows workers into Australia for nine month stints and is restricted to unskilled labour, run by the Department of Jobs.

Under this scheme workers from these countries must be provided a minimum average of 30 hours per week for up to six months.

Intake has risen from 1500 in 2012-13 to 12,000 last financial year.

Under the Working Holiday Maker visas, backpackers can now add a third year to their stay. It remains to be seen if that increases workforce availability.

The number of backpacker workers have been steady at more than 210,000 over the past four financial years.

The story Pressure on Nats over ag visa, again first appeared on Farm Online.

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