THE National Farmers Federation has condemned Labor’s plan to address Australian rural workforce issues by reforming and expanding the Pacific Island worker labour system.
In a seeming abandonment of the Coalition’s ag visa initiative, Labor today announced it would reform the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Scheme’s Seasonal Worker Program and expand the PALM Pacific Labour Scheme.
In an election policy announcement in Darwin, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong said if Labor was elected it would spend $525 million on development assistance for the Pacific over the next four years.
Shadow minister for international development and the Pacific Pat Conroy said Labor would establish a dedicated agriculture visa stream under the PALM, creating a robust and sustainable four-year visa, with portability, strong oversight mechanisms, and protections and rights for workers.
These protections will be consistent with the protections under the PALM-PLS and PALM-SWP. Labor’s new Pacific Engagement Visa would be modelled on New Zealand’s Pacific Access Resident visa and a Labor Federal Government would meets upfront travel costs for Pacific workers under the Seasonal Worker Program, the party said.
After the Labor announcement, Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud tweeted “is that it?”
“Labor’s plan: is one that’s already in place, restricts access to new markets, trashes an agreement with a sovereign country.
“Farmers will be gutted but the @AWUnion couldn’t be happier,” he wrote.
However, Mr Conroy said the government’s current agricultural visa is not working.
“Not a single worker has entered the country under this agriculture visa, it has failed Australian farmers and it has failed the broader Australian community.”
He said unscrupulous employers have been undercutting the Pacific labour schemes.
“That’s why we’ve been so focussed on lifting the standards of all the schemes.”
Mr Conroy said Labor was also forecasting increased visa compliance activity, including putting a firewall between the Department of Home Affairs and the Fair Work Ombudsman so temporary migrant workers would not risk their visa by drawing attentions to abuses. Labor would also work with state and territory and local governments on accommodation and rental conditions and standards.
“They are good schemes, most farmers for example do the right thing, they value the labour.
We are going to partner with them to make sure that we have the best possible standards so that they work in the long term interests of the farmers, the workers and the Australian national interest.”
However, the National Farmers Federation said Labor has today broken the hearts of farmers and rural and regional communities battling workforce shortages, confirming it will not continue with the Ag Visa, “despite tricky words to the contrary”.
National Farmers Federation chief executive officer Tony Mahar said unfortunately, Labor has today confirmed its intention to do away with the farmer-developed ag visa.
“The NFF and our members advocated for an Ag Visa for more than five years.
“The Australian Labor Party had a chance to demonstrate it had listened to farmers and was committed to a bright future for agriculture by backing the Ag Visa,” he said.
“Instead, Labor has turned its back on a chance to be part of a solution for the sector’s workforce crisis.
“Pacific workers are highly valued by Australian farmers and are already well catered for by the short-term Seasonal Worker Program and the longer term Pacific Australia Labor Mobility Scheme,” Mr Mahar said.
“Today’s announcement is an insult to farmers and the rural communities in which they work and live, both in substance and form.
“Labor buried its long-awaited position on the ag visa in a wide-ranging Pacific announcement made in Darwin.
“Labor should have a policy on solving the farm labour crisis – a crisis which impacts each and every Australian at the supermarket checkout,” he said.
“We need a Visa that casts the net further.
“The NFF supported the Government’s focus on ASEAN nations and continues to encourage the expansion of the program to countries further afield to access the number of workers and diversity of skills needed,” Mr Mahar said.
“Labor’s non-Ag-Visa position as revealed today, unfortunately demonstrates a deaf ear when it comes to supporting farmers to access the workforce they need.”
The Coalition has announced it has an ag visa Memorandum of Agreement with Vietnam; however, no workers have entered the country, labour hire firms are yet to see the full conditions of the visa and have been unable to get any details from the government since it entered the pre-election caretaker period.
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