FARMERS in Western Australia and Victoria have joined the National Farmers Federation in calling for a say in the Federal Government’s plan to replace 457 visas for temporary skilled overseas workers.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Tuesday that the government planned to replace 457 visas with new visa streams “to recruit the best and the brightest in the national interest.”
The new visas will tighten restrictions on temporary skilled workers, including requiring applicants to have two years’ prior work experience and higher English language skills, as well as be subject to mandatory police history checks. Short term visas will be issued for two years and medium term visas will be issued for four years when there are more critical skills shortages.
WAFarmers has labelled the Federal Government’s 457 visa changes as an opportunity for the agricultural industry to address workforce issues.
The Victorian Farmers Federation has called on the Federal Government to open the door for an “industry seat at the table” in any planned overhaul of the visa system to avoid the same breakdown in negotiations that befell the controversial backpacker tax.
NFF hopes visas changes will address ag labour needs
The National Farmers’ Federation today said it hoped the Prime Minister’s ‘new’ temporary visa programme will better address the labour needs currently constraining agriculture.
NFF chief executive Tony Mahar said more detail on the government’s new visa program was required before the NFF could ‘welcome’ the announcement.
“It is definitely an opportunity to tailor a working visa program to assist agriculture’s workforce needs.
“As the peak representative body for Australian farming, we’d value an opportunity to consult with the government on the needs of the farm sector from a temporary visa program,” he said.
Mr Mahar said access to skilled workers was essential to the continued growth and productivity of Australian agriculture, but unfortunately critical skill shortages existed across many farm industries.
“Overseas workers are important in meeting these shortages however we have had longstanding issues with access to the 457 visa program,” he said.
NFF said the current program did not recognise enough of the skills Australian farmers require, largely because many occupations have their skill levels classified too low to meet the required threshold.
“The reality is that in farming, much of the training is done on-the-job and experience is valued more highly than tertiary qualifications,” Mr Mahar said.
Labour agreements have been negotiated in the pork and dairy industries to overcome barriers to access for 457 visas for a “senior stockperson (piggery)” and “senior dairy cattle farm worker” roles respectively, the NFF said.
“However, this process is not preferable with negotiating labour agreements a time consuming and resource intensive process.”
Continued access to skilled workers is needed
WAFarmers president Tony York said agriculture in Western Australia and across the country was in a period of growth and that continued access to skilled workers is required to sustain this.
“There has been a steady stream of skilled workers entering the agricultural sector in recent years on 457 visas, particularly while there was increased competition for skilled labour during the mining construction boom here in WA.
“While overseas workers are vitally important to the agricultural industry, particularly during the peak working season, we believe sector will welcome the opportunity to train and employ more local workers,” he said.
“It is just as important to recognise the skills and potential of the local workforce as it is to acknowledge overseas workers, many of whom come from agricultural backgrounds.
“That said, new restrictions would require applicants to have two years of work experience and higher proficiency in English language skills, amongst other requirements, so we do not want capable workers being disqualified from the new program just because they do not come from farming backgrounds,” Mr York said.
“We hope the government’s new visa program will allow the two workforces to complement each other and grow the industry.”
Mr York said WAFarmers agreed with the National Farmers Federation that the changes represented an opportunity for a visa program to be tailored to agriculture and address the workforce needs of industry.
“Further detail is needed on how the changes will affect regional communities and agricultural production, particularly regarding farm labour shortages,” he said.
“We welcome the announcement by the Prime Minister and Minister Dutton that concessions for regional Australia will continue to be available, and hope that these concessions will not only bolster the industry, but encourage workers on the second visa class to stay in regional and rural communities if they apply for permanent residency upon completion of their four-year visa.
“As with the backpacker tax saga last year which highlighted the need for a stable and capable workforce, industry must be informed of how the changes will affect agriculture, but also be involved in discussions regarding the new program.”
VFF doesn’t want repeat of backpacker tax
VFF president David Jochinke said any discussion over visa changes presents new opportunities to discuss a tailored working visa program to assist agriculture’s workforce needs and industry needs a seat at the table.
“Everyone is still licking their wounds over the messy negotiations around the backpacker tax last year, and no-one wants to see that scenario played out for a second time.
“Industry needs to take a pragmatic approach and hold itself out to government as open to discussion over the planned changes.”
Mr Jochinke said while the VFF agreed with the broad policy statement outlined by the Prime Minister, the agriculture industry still faced a critical skills shortage that needed to be addressed.
“Farmers who employ staff know how hard it is to match the right skills to the right job, and industry needs to ask what the changes would mean to an industry that already has problems calling on local labour to fill skills gaps,” he said.
“We don’t disagree with what Prime Minister Turnbull has said so far, but the Government needs to think carefully about how the work experience requirement would work under a new scheme. The last thing we want is capable workers being excluded from the scheme because they haven’t worked in similar farm environments.
“Industry needs to be made aware of how the proposed changes could impact employment in the agriculture sector and given the chance to voice concerns and offer suggestions before the Government goes ahead with any reforms to the current system.”
NSW Farmers to keep a close eye on visa changes
NSW Farmers’ Association president, Derek Schoen, said the Turnbull Government’s decision to replace the 457 visa with a new multi-stream Temporary Skill Shortage Visa must guarantee Australian farmers are not negatively impacted.
“The new temporary skill shortage visa must not add additional hurdles to the process that allows farmers to fill jobs when they can’t get Australian workers.
“Any move that would see red tape added to the visa process could hamper farm productivity and have negative flow on effects for rural and regional economies,” Mr Schoen said.
NSW Farmers’ Association has concerns goat and deer farmers have been removed from the new visa list, as well as turf growers.
“NSW Farmers’ Association will keep a close eye on the new visa arrangements and will consult with other farming bodies, including the National Farmers’ Federation, to ensure farmers are in no way disadvantaged by the changes,” Mr Schoen said.
Sources: NFF, VFF, WAFarmers.