The Morrison government will loosen restrictions on two schemes that bring temporary farm workers into Australia, after months of pressure from the farming lobby and warnings fruit would rot on trees unless a labour solution was found.
The move comes as Prime Minister Scott Morrison begins a tour of Queensland this week.
While the Farmer’s Federation and the Nationals had been calling for a new agricultural visa, the government will instead loosen restrictions on two existing visas: the working backpacker visa and the Pacific islander scheme.
“All of this is designed to support small, family, medium-sized businesses working in regional areas all around the country,” Mr Morrison said, announcing the visa reforms from a Queensland strawberry farm.
“They don’t go home with any money in their pocket. Everything they earn here, they spend here. All the money goes back into regional towns creating more and more jobs.”
The total number of working backpackers allowed into Australia each year will rise, the government confirmed. It will be “lifting annual caps” by an unspecified number for the 462 visa for working backpackers from a select group of countries.
Backpackers will also be able to stay with the one employer for up to a year, rather than six months. The government will also make it easier for backpackers to renew their visas for a second year, and sometimes a third.
Researchers at the Development Policy Centre thinktank warned the expansion of the backpacker scheme would reduce demand for the much smaller Pacific seasonal worker scheme.
In November last year, the centre found there were just 250 Pacific workers in Australia for every 1,000 backpackers. By contrast, New Zealand had nearly 3,000 Pacific workers for every 1,000 backpackers.
Pacific island workers to stay longer, pay more for flights
The government is changing the Pacific worker scheme too.
The existing program allows a limited list of employers to bring in workers from Timor Leste, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
The workers are currently allowed to stay for up to six months – or nine months for those from Nauru, Kiribati and Tuvalu.
Under the changes, the cap will rise to nine months for all countries. Employers will only have to pay $300 towards each worker’s travel costs, instead of the current $500.
Deep Creek Organics is an asparagus farm located around one hour outside Melbourne, and one of the accredited businesses that can access Pacific workers.
Co-owners Donna and Frank Bombaci said their operation would not really benefit from the extension from six to nine months, given their 120-strong workforce of Vanuatu pickers and packers only come for a four-month harvest.
But the pair would welcome their workers paying more of their travel costs, with the employer’s contribution falling from $500 to $300 per worker.
Their workers often earned more than $1000 per week, the couple said, and could afford to make slightly higher repayments as deductions from their wages.
Frank Bombaci told SBS News a “lot more people would come on board” if the travel costs were lower, and said the Pacific scheme had been a godsend for the asparagus industry.
“It’s perfect here. Everyone’s happy. All the growers haven’t got a bad word to say about the program.”
Can’t Australians do the work?
Mr Bombaci said Australians were simply not interested in picking asparagus, describing the job as “one of the worst jobs you could have”.
The farm advertised in Australia but rarely found willing local workers, with most dropping out when they had the role described to them.
“Sometimes it’s 1 – 2am starts, it’s all-weather conditions. Doesn’t matter if it’s 30 degrees, doesn’t matter if it’s 15 degrees, hailing and raining, it still has to be harvested if the product is ready to go,” he said.
“You just don’t get the people looking for that kind of work anymore.”
“Once you explain to them [local Australians] what the job is, they quickly say they’ve found a job somewhere else.”
The company has been drawing on workers from Vanuatu for years now, and has repeat employees who come back year after year.
The seasonal work scheme has not been without controversy, with SBS News revealing more than a dozen Pacific islanders have died on Australian farms over the past six years.
Mr Bombaci said there were dodgy operators who gave the rest a bad name.
“It’s gotta be cleaned out,” he said.