'Impossible' to replace backpackers with Aussies

Farmers clash with union alliance over calls to end the backpacker, working holiday visa scheme

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"I do think it is unfair, the way some people treat backpackers."

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A RIVERINA fruit grower says working backpacker visas cannot be abolished until more Australians are willing to complete tough farm work.

Griffith citrus grower Ross Grillo's comments come as farmers clash with a coalition of unions who are calling for an end to the working holiday program over claims it is rife with exploitation.

Mr Grillo is aware of exploitation but said Australians were unwilling do the horticultural labour which is the mainstay of those on 417 and 426 visas, who must complete 88 days of farm work to extend their stay in the country.

"The only way you [could end the visa program] is when there are enough Australian people to do it. You'd scrap it then but you wouldn't scrap it before," he said.

Mr Grillo employs four working holidaymakers and is aware that some in the industry do take advantage of backpackers.

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"I do think it is unfair, the way some people treat backpackers," he said.

The Australian Workers' Union, the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association and the Transport Workers' Union are demanding the government end the current scheme and replace backpackers with Australian workers.

Australian Workers' Union national secretary, Daniel Walton, said the exploitation of visa workers was well established in the Riverina.

"Instead of demanding the government coerce foreign workers into their industry to be exploited via compulsory visa schemes, they should try obeying the law and paying proper wages," Mr Walton said.

"The industry has deliberately destroyed the labour market conditions and then feigns surprise when young people in NSW refuse to be exploited."

NSW Farmers horticulture committee chair, Guy Gaeta, said he was "flabbergasted" by the unions' demands.

Mr Gaeta said in his 34 years as an orchardist he had not hired a backpacker until 2000, when the Australian seasonal workforce "just started to die off".

He said farmers wouldn't refuse Australian workers, but it was now impossible to get enough local labour for fruit and vegetable picking.

"Whoever comes down our driveway, they get employed. But [Australians] don't come," he said.

"I do know that around 80 per cent of all horticultural crops get picked by backpackers or overseas workers."

More than 2000 people in the Riverina lost their jobs between December 2019 and June this year, according to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

The AWU's Daniel Walton said "the first step" to attracting local workers would be ensuring that all farms paid award wages and provided suitable working and living conditions.

He said Australians believed that some employers "would rather exploit cheap, foreign labour".

An AWU investigation into the death of Fijian worker in the Riverina earlier this year found the man was illegally employed by a produce farm.

Mr Walton said the horticulture industry was "addicted" to exploited visa workers.

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