A continuing decline in the number of backpackers visiting Australia under the Working Holiday Maker program is a threat to the future of the vegetable industry, according to peak national body Ausveg.
According to new figures from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, the number of workers coming to Australia under the 417 visa has dropped repeatedly over the past two years, with over 34,000 fewer visas being granted in 2014-15 than in 2012-13. This includes a nearly 60 per cent decline in workers from Ireland and a 26 per cent decline in workers from Taiwan and South Korea.
“The Australian vegetable industry faces critical local labour shortages during peak seasonal periods, and our growers rely on backpackers to harvest their crops and prevent crippling losses,” said Richard Mulachy, CEO, Ausveg.
The Working Holiday Maker program, which includes the Working Holiday (subclass 417) visa and Work and Holiday (subclass 462) visa, allows visa holders to stay in Australia for 12 months and work for up to six months with any one employer.
Holders of the 417 visa can also receive a second one-year visa if they work for 88 days in regional areas, with the overwhelming majority of these extensions coming from work in agriculture, forestry and fishing.
“The Working Holiday Maker program, and especially the second-year visa extension for regional work, is a huge contributor to the ongoing productivity and profitability of the Australian vegetable industry,” said Mulcahy.
“While Australian growers’ first preference is always to employ local workers, there is simply not enough local labour to satisfy demand during peak harvesting periods, and backpackers play a vital role on Australian farms by providing a workforce during these critical times.”
“If the ongoing decline in the number of backpackers coming to Australia isn’t arrested, or if these workers aren’t replaced with labour from another source like the Seasonal Worker Program, we are facing a very real threat to the future of our industry.”
Ausveg believes that multiple factors could be affecting the overall decline in numbers, including changing economic conditions affecting the appeal of the program in some partner nations.
“The weakening Australian dollar may have contributed to the significant drops in visa holders coming to Australia from South East Asian nations, with these workers often using the program for its financial benefits,” said Mulcahy.
“Australia’s international reputation has also suffered serious damage following the exposure of the unconscionable treatment of foreign workers by some labour hire firms, which could be deterring backpackers from coming to work on our farms.”
“Ausveg has proposed an accreditation system for labour hire companies to try and clean up the rogue elements within the sector and to prevent further damage to Australian industry. We hope to work with the Australian Government, as well as other industry members, to implement this much-needed reform.”