Horticulture

Changes to seasonal worker visas welcomed

By Country News

Mooroopna orchardist Peter Hall has welcomed Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement that backpacker and seasonal worker visas are to be liberalised.

But a failure to deliver on a Nationals pledge to introduce a new agriculture-specific visa disappointed him.

‘‘Backpackers only make up a small component of most farm workforces; they’re a valuable part, but they’re only a small part,’’ Mr Hall said.

‘‘We encourage the government to think of a proper agricultural visa.’’

Mr Hall said seasonal workers earned $23.66 an hour under the current award, and like many in his industry he did not believe a solution lay in forcing the unemployed onto farms.

‘‘To get someone who has never worked on a farm and force them into a fairly challenging environment is a recipe for misery for the worker and the employer,’’ he said.

Mr Hall said the agricultural industries simply needed access to a much larger pool of labour, something the announcement would go part-way to addressing.

Backpackers will no longer have to leave jobs every six months and will be able to triple the length of their stay if they do extra agricultural work.

Pacific Islanders taking up seasonal work will be able to stay three more months and the age limit for working holiday visas for some countries will be lifted to 35.

Mr Morrison ruled out calls to scrap the backpacker tax to attract more foreign workers.

‘‘We need to ensure we get as many Australians into these jobs as we possibly can,’’ he said.

‘‘But we’ve also got to make sure that we actually get the job done.’’

A rule forcing some backpackers to work in northern Australia was also being dumped, allowing them to work in a far wider range of regions.

About 419000 backpackers visited Australia last year, spending $920million in regional towns.

Mr Morrison was hopeful the visa changes would push the figure above $1billion.

Labor frontbencher Andrew Leigh was sceptical about what he described as a ‘‘short-sighted’’ announcement.

A report published recently found backpackers in Australia, about a third of whom are paid less than $12 an hour, are owed billions in unpaid wages.

‘‘The government needs to be very clear about how it’s going to deal with those abuses and how it’s going to create more opportunities for Australians to work in agricultural work,’’ Dr Leigh said.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack denied the changes were an admission the Nationals’ push for an agricultural visa had failed.

‘‘It was always going to be difficult to get a specific ag visa in time for this harvest but we are working towards making sure there are more permanent arrangements in place,’’ Mr McCormack said.

—Myles Peterson, with AAP