On 23 August 2021, the Federal Government announced the establishment of a dedicated Australian Agriculture visa to address agriculture's workforce shortages1. With the design of this visa yet to be finalised, an opportunity exists for the greenlife industry to work closely with the Hort Council to ensure this new visa meets the needs of those members whose businesses underpin the agriculture and forestry sectors.
The announcement of the Australian Agriculture visa (Ag visa) was co-signed by the Deputy Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Agriculture Minister and Immigration Minister, and responded to workforce shortages in the agriculture and primary industry sectors, as well as recent changes to the Working Holiday Maker program developed as part of the UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement.
The Ag visa program, to be operated by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), will provide labour solutions for 2022, with initial recruitments not expected to arrive until the end of this year. The new visa will not be capped and will be available to workers to take up skilled and un-skilled jobs that are unable to be filled domestically across the agriculture (including meat processing), fisheries and forestry sectors. This new program will build on the existing Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) and Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS), with early candidates likely to come from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), subject to each country’s interest in participating. The Federal Government has said that it is considering permanent residency pathways and regional settlement as part of this new program.
The Federal Government has claimed that regulations to enable the creation of the Ag visa will be in place by the end of September 2021. Full visa conditions will be developed and implemented over the next three years and will depend on bilateral negotiations with partner countries and the availability of quarantine places to safely house incoming foreign workers.
Early candidates for the new Australian Agriculture visa are likely to come from ASEAN member countries (Image: Astore International , CC BY-SA 3.0)
Tyson Cattle, Executive Officer for the National Farmers’ Federation Horticulture Council (Hort Council) has welcomed the announcement of the Ag visa. “The Hort Council has been calling for this visa for a number of years. We see this visa as an absolute critical piece for the horticultural industry going forward in terms of attracting and maintaining a competent and efficient workforce,” says Tyson. Whilst Tyson acknowledges the productivity benefits that the Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme have provided, he says that those programs still focus on foreign aid first and do not really address tight harvest or seasonal windows associated with the horticultural industry.
The Hort Council is keen to ensure that the final visa design sets the industry up for the longer term and does not merely provide another stop gap measure. To do this, Tyson says that the visa must address three critical elements:
Firstly, Tyson says that the visa must ensure that the industry can reduce its reliance on backpackers through the Working Holiday Maker scheme. “The industry has been committed to accessing a more efficient and reliable workforce for our sector for the longer term,” Tyson explains.
Secondly, the visa must prevent the exploitation which has plagued the agricultural sector. “There absolutely must be a standard met and safeguards need to be in place for any workers that are coming out, and employers, whether they are labour hire or whether they are a farm or an agricultural business, will need to demonstrate that they are fit and proper,” says Tyson. However, he says that the Hort Council will advocate on industry’s behalf to ensure that the cost to business to meet these standards is not prohibitive or unnecessarily administratively burdensome, so it is accessible by growers of all business sizes.
Thirdly, the visa must be designed to allow for portability and mobility of workers to meet industry needs. “The visa must be able to satisfy the needs of some of those smaller growers that have a four-to-six-week harvest window. We need to create a pathway that brings in an efficient and effective labour force for a shorter time when required,” says Tyson.
What will the new visa mean for the greenlife industry?
“Hort Council’s view has always been that the visa needs to cover all horticulture” says Tyson, “The Minister (for Agriculture) has stated that this visa will include all of agriculture, meat processing, fisheries and forestry, so that includes the nursery industry. They will be a part of this visa, and they are certainly in our line of thinking and part of what we have raised to government. As it stands, the design of the visa is open to all skill levels. Minister Littleproud has been vocal on that aspect; that the visa will be for low or unskilled workers through to semi-skilled and skilled workers. There is still a lot of detail to be worked through, however there will be opportunities for the nursery industry to access workers through this new visa.”
Have your say
Greenlife Industry Australia (GIA) is a member of the Hort Council and welcomes your feedback on the final design of the new Australian Agriculture visa and can feed it into the Hort Council. If you require any further information or want to provide a comment about the proposed Ag visa, please contact Peter Vaughan, GIA Chief Executive Officer, at firstname.lastname@example.org.