CITRUS growers have been cautioned against banking on the Australian ag visa as a solution to this season's labour shortage.
Attendees at the Citrus Technical Forum 2022 held on March 8 and 9 at the Sunshine Coast heard the ag visa could be a year away before being fully implemented.
The Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme was touted as the preferred option for growers to adopt, with longer term planning needed.
It goes against the tradition of growers relying on working holiday makers, or backpackers, to pick and pack fruit for a season.
Speaking at the conference, Citrus Australia chief executive officer Nathan Hancock described the ag visa as a "complicated process".
He said by the time the current ongoing negotiations with participating countries were completed, followed by a trial of the program, it would be at least 12 months before any potential on-farm implementation could be seen.
"It's way more complicated than the Working Holiday Maker Program," Mr Hancock said.
"The ag visa will not be of impact in 2022. I can't see us landing anyone in Australia in citrus for the season. It's not going to happen in 2022.
"We are very much invested in its success but for 2022 I think you ought to put that to the back of your mind."
He said the implementation of COVID-induced travel restrictions sent the number of working holiday makers from about 200,000 to about 30,000 over the past two years.
"It's unlikely a wave of Australians are going to take up these roles," he said.
As the borders open though, it's expected many working holiday makers would enter the hospitality industry.
"When you think about it logically, there is such a demand for people to work in hospitality, to work in those coastal and more tourist type areas, we're likely to see those people going into those jobs first," he said.
Also addressing the conference, Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment agricultural workforce agricultural policy division director Michael Ryan gave the government's update on the $87 million ag visa program, saying participating countries did not want to be named at this stage, apart from Indonesia.
Mr Ryan gave some details of the ag visa, himself reiterating growers should not hold out for the visa but to act on labour needs as they come up.
It's your industry's reputation and you need to be jealous of it, and make yourself an attractive industry for people to come and work in.- Michael Ryan, Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment
According to the department, the ag visa will complement but not displace the broader suite of temporary migration products already available to industry.
He said language skills and accommodation were two major issues that took careful consideration when refining the ag visa.
"It's a real balance between trying to provide for a workforce that has English language skills that enables them to navigate the workplace, navigate the community to work effectively but at the same time recognises that in a lot of the time in the communities we are looking to draw workers from, school education is not high and trying to get a high level of skills is a real challenge," Mr Ryan said.
The current housing boom is making accommodation options more difficult to source for both workers and employers.
"The approach we are looking to start with is that in terms of workers arriving from overseas to Australia, the obligation will be on employers to provide accommodation in the same way they are required to for the PALM workers for an acclimatisation period and then after that the obligation for employers is to provide workers with suitable options for accommodation and workers will then have independence to find accommodation options that work for them," Mr Ryan said.
He also encouraged the industry to take hold of the labour problem and turn it into a positive.
"It's your industry's reputation and you need to be jealous of it, and make yourself an attractive industry for people to come and work in," he said.
"Industry really needs to grapple with the challenges as there is only so much the government can do in terms of providing the framework for people."
Longer term planning needed
WITH doubts over the ag visa being a silver bullet solution, longer term planning for labour could be part of the solution.
Citrus Australia's Mr Hancock said the industry was still in the situation where sourcing working holiday makers would be extremely difficult and unreliable for years to come.
He encouraged all growers, regardless of scale, to explore the PALM scheme, which will consolidate the previous Seasonal Worker Programme and Pacific Labour Scheme, from April this year.
"The future for seasonal labour is going to be one of those decisions you are going to have to make, a bit like forward-planning for fertiliser inputs or where your fruit is going to go to market and what trees to plant," Mr Hancock said.
"For those of you who may be a smaller grower or a medium-sized grower who haven't gone down that path yet, I really encourage you to start making those steps."
He said growers could utilise labour employment firms to help with the process.
Backpacker flow may dwindle
THE days of taking in waves of backpackers for farm work may be limited, according to the Citrus Australia CEO.
"For me, the long term existence of working holiday makers is obviously eroded by what prime minister Morrison did in June last year when he made the working holiday visa redundant for people coming from the UK," Mr Hancock said.
"I think that is basically the start of the erosion of that working holiday maker for the time to come, over the next five to 10 years."
A looming federal election also creates delays and uncertainty over the ag visa, according to Mr Hancock, who said apart from the government going into caretaker mode, it was uncertain the elected government would "have an appetite to see it through".
"I think it could be a huge structural change that could be very, very beneficial for our industry but I don't think it can be delivered in 2022 in a meaningful way," he said.
Mr Hancock did not address piece rates from the stage due to limited time but said he was able to provide as much data as was available for anyone interested.
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