News

Pension and visa changes hold hope for shearing sector

Terry Sim, September 5, 2022

SCAA secretary Jason Letchford.

AUSTRALIA’S shearing contractors have welcomed proposed changes to the skilled migration intake, new tax treatment of working pensioners and relaxation of work restrictions on international students.

In the wake of the Jobs and Skills Summit last week, the sheep and wool industry is waiting to see if the positive changes to migration, tax and work restrictions translate into real workforce options.

Under proposed changes to the pension work bonus, pensioners will receive a one-off income credit so working seniors can earn an extra $4000 in this financial year without losing their pension.

The government said an immediate $4000 income credit will be added to the income banks of age pensioners from December to be used this financial year.

The temporary income bank top up will increase the amount pensioners can earn from $7800 to $11,800 this year, before their pension is reduced. Pensioners will be able to earn up to the new limit without losing their pension, either in short stints or over the course of a year.

The $4000 temporary credit will be available until June 30, 2023, subject to the passage of legislation. The government said it will also look to strengthen legislation to ensure pensioners who are working don’t get unnecessarily kicked out of the social security system. It will expedite legislation to ensure pensioners don’t have to reapply for payments for up to two years if their employment income exceeds the income limit. Currently their connection to social security is cancelled after 12 weeks of exceeding the income limit. Pensioners will also retain access to their pensioner concession card and associated benefits for two years.

The Federal Government has also announced an increase in the permanent Migration Program ceiling to 195,000 in 2022-23, including 9000 visas specifically for the regions, to help ease widespread, critical workforce shortages.

The government also said it would extend visas and relax work restrictions on international students to strengthen the pipeline of skilled labour, and providing $365.1 million in additional funding to resolve the visa backlog.

Minister for Skills and Training Brendan O’Connor told the ABC Insiders program on Sunday there were almost a million visas that have not been processed, and thousands of temporary visa holders who have been here for a decade in areas of skill shortage who can’t get permanent residency.

Minister for Agriculture Murray Watt told Sky News on Sunday that it is estimated there are about 40,000 Pacific Island workers who are vetted and ready to come here, raising hopes some might be available for training in the shearing sector.

“So we want to get as many of them in as we can, as quickly as possible.

“As I say, we’ve already committed to increasing the migration cap, whether it be for the whole country or regional Australia,” Mr Watt said.

“We’re fast-tracking the processing of visas for people who are still waiting for their visas to be approved.

“And we’re going to be speeding up the delivery of those training places.”

At the jobs and skills summit, the government also announced an additional $1 billion in joint Federal-State funding for fee-free TAFE in 2023 and accelerated delivery of 465,000 fee-free TAFE places.

Pension work bonus would make a difference

Shearing Contractors Association of Australia secretary Jason Letchford said the pension work bonus would make a difference to the available workforce of shearers, classers and wool handlers.

“That demographic has great concerns about the negative impact of any work on their pension status, so improvements there should be well-publicised amongst that sector.”

He said since the COVID-19 pandemic, the shearing sector had built the back-end systems – training, job placement and on-boarding.

“We now just need the people to fill these places.

“That said, it’s worth tempering expectations in that there is a huge lag in time between these announcements and seeing people working in shearing sheds,” he said.

“We are unlikely to see any overseas workers this Spring, but hopefully it will provide relief in Autumn, our other peak period.”

Mr Letchford said Mr Watt’s disclosure of 40,000 vetted Pacific workers sounded promising, but he was still curious if there was a “resource gap” in facilitating their availability with the government or migration agents.

“We are unlikely to see any of these people overseas workers this Spring, but hopefully it will provide relief in Autumn, our other peak period.”

Mr Letchford said Mr Watt’s disclosure of 40,000 vetted Pacific workers sounded promising, but he was still curious if the there was a “resource gap” in facilitating their availability lay with the government or migration agents, because shearing contractors were having difficulty accessing them.

Mr Letchford said he was hoping that some of the changes would make it easier for skilled shearers and wool handlers from countries such as the United Kingdom, North America and Europe to work in Australia.

“We would support any changes in that aspect – if it was reasonable and practicable it would absolutely be welcomed by the sector.

“The first impediment that needs to come down there is that unskilled UK workers currently need to be under 35 years of age (17-35 years) to qualify for the six month work and holiday visa.

“They currently have to be under 35 years old and as we all know to be skilled takes time, so we miss out on all those 35 year-old-plus skilled workers,” he said.

“Otherwise, a skilled UK worker needs to get a $4000 sponsored visa to work here.”

He said SCAA would support any relaxation on the visa age limits for workers coming her for just three months.

“Having them here for Spring and or Autumn would absolutely be a gamechanger for us.”

South-west Victorian contractor Atawhai Hauraki said the pension work bonus would make a difference for pension-age shearers.

Mr Hauraki said he also knew of UK shearers who were keen to work in Australia, but have had difficulty in applying for visas.

“They are finding it hard over there, because I think there have been mixed messages coming from this side.

“If they clear the board for them, they will definitely go for a visa,” he said.

“There are a heap of them that want to come over.”

The shearers would also bring wool handlers with them if they could obtain visas, he said.

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