Federal Government makes changes to agricultural visa programs
Fruit will be picked and farm-based backpackers can stay where they are, following a Federal Government announcement relaxing restrictions on agricultural visas for the duration of the pandemic.
The temporary measures will mean workers within the Pacific Labour Scheme, Seasonal Worker Program and working holiday makers can continue to work in agriculture and food processing with the assurance their visas will be extended.
However, the government has flagged employers will need to commit to providing safe accommodation for agricultural workers and comply with any social distancing or quarantine requirements.
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Michael McCormack said the changes would support business and secure the food supply, ultimately protecting the health of Australians.
“We can’t afford to see fruit rotting on trees and vines and vegetables left unpicked. It is vital our farmers maximise their hard work and economic returns,” he said.
“We are acting to enable seasonal workers to extend their stay and remain lawfully in Australia until they are able to return to their home countries.
“The agriculture sector relies on an ongoing workforce and we are committed to providing the means for that to continue while ensuring strict health and safety measures are adhered to, including visa holders following self-isolation requirements when they move between regions.”
Minister McCormack said specifically the visa changes would exempt agricultural working holiday makers from the six month work limitation with the one employer, and give them eligibility for a further visa should the current one expire within the next six months.
The changes would also apply to Seasonal Worker Program and Pacific Labour Scheme workers, allowing them to extend their stay for up to 12 months.
Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management David Littleproud said the government would work with the relevant state and territories to ensure health controls were in place to protect rural communities.
“It is essential for our food security that workers can move to meet these seasonal labour needs,” he said.
“At the same time it is critical we manage this labour force to support the on-going health of regional communities.”
Minister Littleproud said the National Farmers’s Federation had produced a set of best practice guidelines to protect both domestic and migrant farm workers during the covid-19 outbreak.
“We have asked the Chief Medical Officer to review these guidelines and it is critical that they are then considered by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee,” he said.
Minister Littleproud said conditions would be placed upon visa holders to self-isolate for 14 days before taking up employment in a different region.
Industry body Ausveg CEO James Whiteside said the changes were a sensible and practical solution for the fruit and vegetable growers who relied on seasonal labour.
“The decision to temporarily extend the visas of seasonal workers and backpackers already working on farms in Australia will give growers confidence to plant their crops for the coming season,” he said.
“It will help keep local businesses open in regional and rural areas that rely on agriculture to survive, and will ensure that locals, seasonal workers and backpackers alike are able to keep their jobs, work and live safely and keep the economy running.
“Extending visas for seasonal workers and backpackers provides some certainty for growers, who have already experienced extreme hardship through drought and the summer bushfires.”
Immediate relief needed for citrus
Citrus Australia CEO Nathan Hancock said while he welcomed the measures, bridging visas needed to be approved as soon as possible given the Queensland citrus harvest was already underway.
“Our growers are ready to harvest thousands of tonnes of fresh Australian citrus for Australian consumers, and immediate access to these visa extensions is crucial,” he said.
Mr Hancock said while growers and packing sheds had already made adjustments to cater for social distancing and hygiene requirements, it was imperative government stepped in to produce uniform guidelines across states.
“Citrus Australia has provided advice to growers on how to manage their harvest, and their workforce, through this challenging period,” he said.
“The government has said it will work with states and territories on enforcement and sanction mechanisms.
“However, it is imperative that Federal and State Governments produce a uniform, accepted set of guidelines for all growers to follow.”
Mr Hancock has also called for support from federal and state governments, as local councils would require their help to provide facilities for self-isolation
“The seasonal workforce, and agricultural businesses, are crucial to the economic well being of these councils and some councils have taken up the challenge to prepare for these unusual circumstances,” he said.
“Government assistance is both necessary and warranted.”
Local workers still wanted
National Farmers’ Federation president Fiona Simson said the NFF and its members welcomed the changes, and while farmers always preferred to employ locals, migrant workers were necessary to supply labour shortages.
“Farmers would always prefer to employ local workers and at this time, when some many are now without a job, we encourage Australians to consider farm work where their circumstances permit,” she said.
“However, for many reasons farm work doesn’t attract adequate interest from Australians.
“This is perhaps even more so now during times when travel between states and within some states, is restricted and when people are especially wanting to stay close to their families.
“The farm sector relies on a combination of local and foreign workers to get fruit and vegetables picked and packed and ready for Australians to enjoy. Without international workers many farmers would be forced to leave produce to simply rot and die.”