AUSTRALIAN farmers have welcomed a new agricultural visa scheme announced Monday designed to fill disastrous labour shortages in the horticulture industry despite the pointed criticism from the federal opposition.
A joint statement from Labor’s shadow minister for immigration and citizenship Senator Kristina Keneally, shadow minister for agriculture Julie Collins and shadow minister for international development Pat Conroy, said producers would have been “feeling a keen sense of déjà vu” with yet another announcement on an agriculture visa that “delivers nothing as crippling workforce shortages grow”.
NSW Farmers Horticulture Committee chair Guy Gaeta said the NSW Farmers Association has been calling for a dedicated workforce for years but was thankful the new scheme would be in place by the end of September 2021.
“Last year we just managed to get through our harvest but now we’re coming into harvest in September, and we need people again; the whole industry needs people starting at the summer for six months,” Mr Gaeta said.
National Irrigators Council chief executive officer Isaac Jeffrey said the agriculture industry has long needed a response to critical labour shortages.
Last season we saw fruit rotting and crops going unpicked as farmers struggled to hire a willing workforceNational Irrigators Council chief executive officer Isaac Jeffrey
“This new visa is a welcomed and positive step to help our food and fibre producers avoid these shortfalls into the future.”
But a joint statement from some federal Labor ministers claims the scheme shows an “addiction” of the Morrison government to temporary visa holders who are more susceptible to exploitation and wage suppression.
“This new visa also has the potential to undermine key elements of the Pacific Step Up including the Seasonal Workers Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme at a time when our relationship with the region has never been more important.”
A joint survey published by Unions NSW and the Migrants Workers Centre released in June shows that some migrant agricultural workers earn as little as $9 a day.
Of the survey respondents, 1300 horticulture workers reported being underpaid at some point, with 80 per cent underpaid piece rates and 61 per cent hourly rates.
Ausveg CEO Michael Coote said the pandemic had exacerbated the industry’s chronic labour shortage, which has been estimated to reach up to 24,000 harvest workers in early 2022 for the coming peak harvest season.
The Australian Agriculture visa will be available to workers across the agriculture (including meat processing), fisheries and forestry sectors and provide a basis for the ongoing growth of Australia’s primary industries as they strive to reach $100 billion in value by 2030.
In 2020 Agricultural Minister David Littleproud said that 25,000 pre-vetted Pacific workers would go towards fixing the labour shortages.
However, in a media conference in June of this year, Mr Littleproud said only 7000 workers made it to Australia, many of whom had to go home due to the COVID-pandemic.
“They’ve done their time and they want to go home,” he said.
“They want to see their family, so, this is about continuing to increase supply.
“And so, we have seen where farmers are simply not planting their crops because they’re saying we do not have the confidence of labour at the end of it.
“We are saying now you’ve got the confidence, the states just need to have the courage and conviction to come with us.”