It is no secret that Queensland’s agricultural sector has a reliance on international labour and workers, particularly during peak seasonal demands when labour is difficult to access.
It is also no secret the often unfortunate reasons behind why many in our sector cannot attract of the required talent to fill the required roles.
The Federal Government recently announced it was scrapping the 457 visa class and replacing it with two new visa classes – a short term two-year visa and a medium term four-year visa with different occupations in each class.
Details are yet to become clear, but many of the agriculture-related roles fall into the short term stream. What is clear is that this will change how Australia allows some foreign workers into the country.
Government and industry must therefore see this as a catalyst to seriously look at ways to overcome some of the often systemic barriers impacting agriculture’s ability to find local workers.
Of the 216 categories removed from the skilled labour list, the following agriculture-related occupations are gone: nursery person, goat farmer, deer farmer, stock and station agent, shearer, wool buyer, wool classer, fisheries officer, quarantine officer and horse trainer.
Nationally, the Agricultural, Forestry and Fisheries sector sponsored an average of 965 visas in the past five years (2011-12 to 2015-16). Over the same period, 298 visas were sponsored in Queensland – about 31 per cent.
However, Queensland agriculture is not overly dependent or reliant on the use of 457 visa workers to fulfill and maintain positions. At the end of 2016, our sector employed 55,600 people but only 433 were employed on sponsored 457 visas – less than 0.8 per cent.
It is important to note that the changes to 457 visas do not impact the research sector that benefits the industry. 457 visas have, and continue to be, crucial when hiring talent from oversees that is important to assist with research and development of locals.
The elephant in the room when it comes to agricultural labour is our sector’s reliance on 417 (working holiday) and 462 (work and holiday) visas.
This issue became well publicised during the backpacker tax saga and exposed production horticulture’s reliance on international workers.
Disappointingly, the issue became a political game and it was evident that there had been little analysis and modelling, or genuine industry consultation.
Now is the time to seize this new-found momentum on supporting jobs in regional Australia to address broader barriers like geography, pay and work conditions impacting agriculture’s ability to employing ‘locals’ on our farms.
These barriers have and continue to undercut our sector’s ability to attract the right talent to maximise growth and opportunities currently available.
QFF is calling on the government to work with industry to come up with measures that could be used to overcome these labour issues.
It is important that a holistic approach considers incentives, grants and economic stimulus to reinvigorate the sector’s labour force.
Without a considered approach that addresses the heart of the labour issues affecting agriculture, we risk undermining the current benefits that are flowing from the required access to international labour.