Backpacker Visa a Temporary Relief for Farmers. But What About the Long-run?Farm Tender Dec 04, 2018
Shortage of farm labour, especially during the harvest season has been a perennial problem in the Australian agriculture sector. Reliable workforce in adequate numbers is crucial for farmers to maximise the output from their farms and maintain its sustainability.
With unemployed Australians being reluctant to do hard farm work, farmers typically rely on overseas backpackers as a temporary solution to meet their demand for more workforce during the harvesting season.
Considering the long-standing demand from the agricultural sector for more farm labourers, the government has finally announced a key policy change in backpacker visa norms in November this year with immediate effect.
The Features of the New Backpacker Visa Policy
Under the new overseas worker policy, backpackers would be able to stay and work in Australian farms for longer periods than was possible until now. Seasonal oversees workers will no longer be restricted to the six-month stay period as before. Instead, they can stay for three months more and even triple the duration of their stay in the country if they work for extra hours on the farms they are working at.
The age limit has also been extended to 35 years for working holiday visas for citizens from certain countries.
As expected, the farming community has welcomed the new visa policy as a step in the right direction. It is certain to help farmers, especially those with expansive farms to hire an adequate number of temporary workers they need at the right time to make farming profitable and successful.
Impact of the New Visa Policy
The immediate impact is obviously the fact that most Australian farms would now have enough farmhands for a longer period of time. Even areas that are considered as regional, such as the Northern Territory have been extended and included under the new policy. This will be especially beneficial for farmers in these regions where getting good farmhand is extremely difficult.
The new extension in visa policy will now enable backpackers who are on a holiday visa to extend their stay in these areas for more than six months. And as mentioned before, they can even get a one-year extension if they remain with the same employer and have a chance to get a second-year extension.
There is even a provision for a third-year extension if they spend more than six months working in farms in such regional areas.
For temporary farm workers coming from the Pacific Islands, the seasonal worker permit has been extended to nine months from six months.
A Win-Win Situation for All
Statistics collected over decades indicate that Australian farms have always been heavily dependent on migrant workers. Even the latest figures indicate that backpackers still outnumber seasonal local farmhands 5 to 1.
With the latest change in temporary worker visa permit, farms will now be able to employ migrant labourers throughout the year. This means they can retain enough workers throughout the year as the crop patterns change from season to season. As the farm moves on from growing citrus fruits to stone fruits to grapes to vegetables, they will have the same workforce without having to hire new farmhands every six months.
For backpackers, the new visa policy offers excellent benefits too. They can stay in Australia for a longer period of time if they enjoy farm work and earn handsome remuneration. This is especially true for those coming from the Pacific Islands where most people have high traditional knowledge of farming and harvesting but are not professionally trained.
Trends indicate that people from the Pacific Islands love to stay back and work for a longer period on a farm as compared to backpackers from other nations. They are also on an average 20% more productive than regular backpackers.
With the new visa policy, they can now get an exposure to the latest farming techniques and gadgets, earn better than they do in their own nations and enhance their skills by working in farms that are professionally maintained.
Less Expense for Australian Farms
The new visa policy offers substantial relief on the investment front too. Every time an employer hires a particular number of workers, he spends considerably on training them and invests in enhancing their skills. Doing this every six months calls for substantial investment on training which comes to naught at the end of the six-month period.
With the new visa policy, farms will be able to retain the workers they have already trained without having to hire new people and train them all over again. Worker retention also helps in identifying potential leaders i.e., workers with leadership qualities who can be further trained to take up managerial duties. This not only lessens the burden on the employer but makes all that investment on training worth every dollar.
The new policy is also formulated to shift a part of the initial investment from the employer to the migrant workers. However, the aim is not to underpay the workers but help farmers recover a part of the upfront costs of hiring seasonal workers. It is about connecting farmers to workers in a way that reduces the investment for the farmer while offering better opportunities and options for seasonal workers to stay back on the farm they are working in.
Looking for a Long-term Solution
While the agricultural community is definitely ecstatic about the new policy and glad that the government has finally acknowledged their demand, a long-term solution is definitely required.
The new change in backpacker visa rules will certainly provide immediate relief to farmers during the harvest season but growers are demanding more changes in the agricultural visa norms to make it more viable.
The present programmer still ties the worker to a single employer in order to avail of the benefits. According to growers’ lobby, the rules need to be more flexible to allow workers to move from farm to farm so that farmers can hire workers as and when they require and not for a specified period of time. This will be beneficial both for employers and the backpackers and other migrant agricultural workers.
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