Larger labour pool needed

By Myles Peterson

Mooroopna orchardist Peter Hall has welcomed Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement that backpacker and seasonal worker visas are to be liberalised.

But a failure to deliver on a Nationals’ pledge to introduce a new agriculture-specific visa disappointed him.

‘‘Backpackers only make up a small component of most farm workforces, they’re a valuable part, but they’re only a small part,’’ Mr Hall said.

‘‘We encourage the government to think of a proper agricultural visa.’’

Mr Hall said seasonal workers earned $23.66 an hour under the current award and like many in his industry he did not believe a solution lied in forcing the unemployed onto farms.

‘‘To get someone who has never worked on a farm and force them into a fairly challenging environment is a recipe for misery for the worker and the employer,’’ he said.

Mr Hall said the agricultural industries simply needed access to a much larger pool of labour, something the announcement would go part-way to addressing.

Backpackers will no longer have to leave jobs every six months and will be able to triple the length of their stay if they do extra agricultural work.

Pacific Islanders taking up seasonal work will be able to stay three more months and the age limit for working holiday visas for some countries will be lifted to 35.

Mr Morrison ruled out calls to scrap the backpacker tax to attract more foreign workers.

‘‘We need to ensure we get as many Australians into these jobs as we possibly can,’’ he said.

‘‘But we’ve also got to make sure that we actually get the job done.’’

A rule forcing some backpackers to work in northern Australia was also being dumped, allowing them to work in a far wider range of regions.

About 419000 backpackers visited Australia last year, spending $920million in regional towns.

Mr Morrison was hopeful the visa changes would push the figure above $1billion.

‘‘They don’t go home with any money in their pocket. Everything they earn here, they spend here,’’ he said.

Mr Morrison was firm when asked whether he was considering eliminating the 15 per cent tax on working holiday-makers.

‘‘When people come and they work, they pay tax,’’ he said.

‘‘We all pay tax when we work. If other people come here and they work, they pay tax, too. And they pay it at a concessional rate and I think it’s a pretty fair deal.’’

Labor frontbencher Andrew Leigh was sceptical about what he described as a ‘‘short-sighted’’ announcement.

A report published last week found backpackers in Australia, about a third of whom are paid less than $12 an hour, are owed billions in unpaid wages.

‘‘The government needs to be very clear about how it’s going to deal with those abuses and how it’s going to create more opportunities for Australians to work in agricultural work,’’ Dr Leigh said.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack denied the changes were an admission the National Party’s push for an agricultural visa had failed.

‘‘It was always going to be difficult to get a specific ag visa in time for this harvest but we are working towards making sure there are more permanent arrangements in place,’’ he said.

—with AAP