Rural sector criticise migration policy, despite regional focus

Rural sector critical of migration policy despite regional focus


New visa categories won't fill farm labour workforce shortfalls, farmers say.


RURAL industries remain unsatisfied with migration policy, despite the federal government's focus on increasing the skilled migrant intake in regional areas.

Immigration and Migrant Services Minister David Coleman said the government had granted the lowest number of visas in a decade, with 160,323 granted this year.

The government's strategy is to reduce population pressure on major cities' groaning infrastructure, and increase the rural workforce to boost smaller cities and regional economies.

But the rural sector struggles to attract and hang on to skilled and unskilled workers, and the horticulture sector in particular continues to campaign for a dedicated visa category designed to address their workforce needs.


Mr Coleman said government had reserved 23,000 visas for skilled migrants to regional areas, and had created two new regional visas to fill the 60,000 job vacancies in the bush.

The migrant workers become eligible for permanent residence if they stay in regional Australia for three years.

The federal government has allocated 9000 regional visas off its own bat, and is working with state governments to determine the remaining 14,000.

"We're directing migration to those smaller cities and regional areas that are crying out for more people and those regional economies that simply cannot fill jobs with local workers," he said.

Last year the government announced changes to the Pacific Labour Scheme for semi-skilled Pacific nation workers and the Seasonal Worker Program, largely to ease the shortage of harvest workers in horticulture.

Last month government expanded the number of backpacker visa places available to young Vietnamese people, upping our annual intake from 200 to 1,500 a year.

It is in discussions over extending the list of working holiday visas to people from an extended list of countries including India, Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines.

Victorian Farmers Federation vice president, Emma Germano said migrant worker policy "looks like a dog's breakfast".

"There's a convoluted visa scheme that is constantly changing sponsorship conditions and labour market testing rules," said Ms Germano, a horticulture and mixed farmer from South Gippsland,.

Victorian Farmers Federation vice president, Emma Germano.

Victorian Farmers Federation vice president, Emma Germano.

"We need a national agricultural labor plan around where the shortages are, and in what industries."

Ms Germano said migrant worker schemes needs urgent reform to increase the number of suitable workers available to the farm sector.

She favoured a single agricultural visa scheme where eligible workers had valid entry to Australia over two to three years, and could come and go from the country with seasonal work.

A key concern of the horticulture sector is that current visas require the employer to sponsor workers.

Smaller farms don't have enough crops to offer extended periods of employment to workers and an ag visa should permit workers to move between farms to follow the harvest week-by-week.

"A perfect ag visa would be somewhere between a backpacker and seasonal worker program, which matched skill needs with eligible countries - and it would be good if it was open to a range of countries including those we trade with, not just Pacific nations," Ms Germano said.

The National Farmers' Federation has put the shortfall across the farm sector at around 100,000 workers across the entire farm sector.

The other visas don't seem to suit a large amount of workers, for such a short (harvest) period. - Mick Young, Sharp Fruit, Vic

In response to industry calls for an ag visa, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the National Farmers' Federation that it needed to provide more data on workforce shortages, with industry and geographic breakdowns.

Ms Germano said it was unreasonable to expect industry to collate the complicated data, which was already collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and ABARES, but that information is restricted from publication.

Sharp Fruit director Mick Young, who runs a stonefruit orchard and packing shed near Swan Hill, Victoria, said his industry needed an ag visa that offered attractive conditions to workers who are only offered limited stints with each employer.

"The other visas don't seem to suit a large amount of workers, for such a short (harvest) period," Mr Young said.

"The staff that we get that want to do large hours in a short period of time suits us well.

"Workers under the backpacker program are often unsuited to the industry and make business difficult to manage.

"A lot of the people who come over on holiday visas, especially from European countires, aren't suited to outdoor work. They're not used to the heat, or interested in doing hands on labour.

"If they don't have making money at heart then you don't really know if they're going to show up the next day, which makes it very difficult to forward plan.

"Some sort of ag visa where you know you have the staff coming and they can return again, then you'll know what you've got."


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