Farmers fear visa policy changes will leave them without workers

New challenges are arising for West Australian farmers who rely on a seasonal workforce to keep their businesses going.

Farmers fear potential changes to backpacker working rules and changes to the Pacific Islander working scheme could upset the balance of the farming workforce.

A review into Australia’s migration system has suggested limiting the working holiday-maker visa to one year, rather than giving backpackers the opportunity to extend their visa if they do 88 days of eligible work in a regional area.

The federal government declined to comment ahead of its response to the review later in the year.

In making the recommendation, the review highlighted investigations into the program that shone a light on the exploitation of travellers.

While a decision has not been made about the backpacker recommendation, there will be changes to the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme.

As a result of the changes, Pacific Islander workers will need to be offered a minimum of 30 hours of work each week.

Fallout from changes

A woman standing in front of banana trees holding packets of bananas
Doriana Mangili says workers on the working holiday visa are crucial for growers.(Supplied: Sweeter Banana Co-Operative)

Backpackers on working holiday visas currently make up about 50 per cent of Doriana Mangili’s workforce at her banana farms in Carnarvon, in WA’s Gascoyne region.

In summer, backpackers make up to 80 per cent of her employees.

She said the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted what impact worker shortages had on prices and availability of produce.

“We saw during COVID when we didn’t have new seasonal workers coming in that many, many farms planted less and grew less because they could only harvest what they could harvest themselves,” Ms Mangili said.

“We saw the price of food going up because there was more demand with less supply.”

Farmers across the country turned to hiring Pacific Island workers during the pandemic, but Ms Mangili predicted changes coming to effect next year would result in producers moving away from the scheme.

“If you have to pay for a worker every single week and you don’t have fruit to harvest or pack, then it very quickly becomes unviable,” she said.

“I think people will move away from those Pacific Island labour schemes as well because the cost will be too high.”

Migration schemes provide balance

Woman smiling in foreground
Kaya Barry says there are financial risks that come with the changes.(Supplied)

Griffith University research fellow Kaya Barry, who is working on a three-year project that looks at seasonal workers, said changes to the holiday-maker visas and the PALM scheme would have an impact on farming industries and regional communities.

A Qantas plane taxies along a runway in overcast conditions while passengers seated inside watch on.

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“At the moment, there’s a good enough balance between these two visas to do most of this seasonal work,” she said.

Dr Barry agreed with Ms Mangili and said guaranteeing 30 hours a week of work would be a financial risk.

“So that’s where the working holiday-maker visa has filled this gap as this kind of buffer,” she said.

“But if you take either the working holiday-makers’ specified work requirements out of the picture or this new change … I think the industry is going to have to do some good planning and think about how they’re going to financially buffer themselves.”

Dr Barry also was not convinced that getting rid of the 88-day incentive was the right decision.

“Maybe we need to think differently rather than mandating people to work in exchange for visa time,” she said.

‘I would not be here’

A bacpacker sits on a step with a coffee
Alessandro Parrone says backpackers make a valuable contribution to regional WA towns.(ABC South West: Jacqueline Lynch)

In Donnybrook, in WA’s South West, backpackers such as Alessandro Parrone freely admit they would not be there if they were not required to do 88 days of country work to stay in Australia for longer.

“I would not even know about Donnybrook, I wouldn’t have looked for a place where it’s possible to do the farm days,” he said.

“I would not be here.”

He said travellers were making a valuable contribution to regional WA towns.

“I think backpackers are needed,” he said.

A backpacker looks at the camera
Laurent Goseph is a traveller from Reunion Island.(ABC South West: Jacqueline Lynch)

Reunion Island traveller Laurent Goseph agreed farmers would struggle if backpackers were not given the option to extend their visas.

“It’s allowed me to do something different,” he said.


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