DEPUTY Leader of the Nationals, Senator Bridget McKenzie, herself a former South Gippslander, has welcomed the changes to the Seasonal Worker Program, announced by Nationals leader Michael McCormack and Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Ms McKenzie, the Minister for Regional Services and Decentralisation, said last week the changes would create a larger pool of workers for farmers.
“This announcement is an important step forward in resolving the shortage of agricultural workers in Australia and is something the Nats have been relentless in agitating for as our ag industries continue to boom,” Senator McKenzie said.
“It’s a simple equation – our farmers are the best in the world. They continue to grow ever more high quality, better tasting Australian produce each year and that produce needs picking, packing, sorting and shipping.
“To do that, you need a steady supply of workers. The changes announced last week are focussed on not only creating a bigger pool of workers, but keeping the ones already on farm and in our communities there longer. This not only gives them more incentive to work in the regions and immerse themselves in our communities, but gives farmers certainty.”
VFF Horticulture Group President and Managing Director of her family’s mixed farming operation at Mirboo North, Emma Germano, has welcomed the visa improvements, especially the backpacker eligibility extending to a third year if six months of farm work was included.
Although the truth of it is that it’s a quarter of what farmers asked for five years ago. But she’s too polite to say so.
“It’s good news. We’re happy to see the improvements and we’d like to thank the government for that but, in reality, we really want a visa that’s more tailored to the needs of agriculture not as they are now, more in the nature of overseas aid and travel visas.”
Ms Germano said what farm operations wanted was a visa that specifically addressed needs of agriculture, including:
• Work visas open to south-east Asian nations
• Work visas open to nationalities that already came here in numbers looking for agricultural work including, but not limited to, Indonesians and Malaysians.
• Work visias that offered portability (allow the visa worker to move between employers)
• A period of time extended to 2/3 year so that skills and knowledge, which often took six months to learn wouldn’t be lost.
Ms Germano said the new arrangements would still leave many agricultural sectors short of the workers they needed, local and overseas, to complete their harvests, dairy work and other requirements.
“The period of time allowed might suit fruit harvest but other agricultural sections including the veggie growers and dairy need the overseas workers for longer periods of times.
“Look, it’s an improvement but we’ll still be working with the government trying to get a visa that best suits the needs of farmers and agricultural production.”
Locally, Ms Germano said it was a busy time with snowpeas beginning to flourish around Leongatha and Korumburra, asparagus on the go on the famous Koo Wee Rup flats, berries coming on in time for Christmas and East Gippsland growers reaching their peaks of production.
“Potatoes and onions locally, although a lot of it automated nowadays, traditionally gets started at the beginning of December and runs through January, February and March.
The proposed changes would extend the current period of work for Seasonal Worker visas by 50% – from 6 months to 9 months, provide conditional pathways to extend or bridge some types of visas, and make it easier for workers to stay with the same employer for up to 12 months. The changes would also see a reduction in out-of-pocket costs for employers.
In welcoming the changes, Minister McKenzie, acknowledged there was still a way to go.
“The National Party has been relentless in perusing changes like these to the visa system for years. We have achieved some steps in the right direction, but my party and I are determined to continue pushing for more important longterm strategies,” Minister McKenzie said.
Touring the Burnett region of Queensland last week, the Minister said that the area had “great success with current visa programs, but every grower I spoke to foreshadowed that consistency of workforce was vital – this announcement addresses those concerns in the short term while we continue to work towards permanent strategies”.
“The issue of certainty is at the core of these changes. By the time short-term workers are trained up and working to their full potential, it’s time for them to leave again, and it’s difficult for them to even return to the same farms.
“Our farmers want to have positive working relationships with their employees. Working with the same people for longer periods will build these relationships, and visa holders will likewise build a relationship with their community,” Ms McKenzie said.
As well as her prominent role with the VFF, Emma Germano, who hails from Mirboo North, also sits on the Vegetable Industry Market and Value Chain Strategic Investment Advisory Panel and has previously held tenure on the Victorian Vegetable Growers Executive Committee. She is a Nuffield Scholar (2014) researching global export opportunities for Australian primary producers.