Agriculture visa for foreign workers set to be capped at 1,000, DFAT says

Australia’s new agriculture visa could initially be capped at 1,000 foreign workers despite expectations that it would recruit at least 10 times that number.

The visa was promised by the government after trade negotiations with the UK last year led Canberra to remove a requirement that British backpackers work on farms to extend their visas.

Before the pandemic, Australian farmers relied on the labour of up to 10,000 backpackers from the UK every year and Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said any new arrangements must ensure that workforce was replaced.

“We have an agreement that the National Party will be able to secure those workers that would otherwise have come, but also build and actually get greater capacity,” he said when the new visa was announced.

But despite Mr Littleproud suggesting the new visa would be “up and running well before Christmas” no foreign country has agreed to participate in the program so far.

PALM ‘primacy’

Under questioning from Opposition Senator Kristina Keneally at an estimates hearing on Wednesday, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) officials said bilateral negotiations with Indonesia to participate in the visa program were progressing and were expected to be finalised soon.

But DFAT’s Ewen McDonald also made it clear the government’s preference was to recruit farm workers under the existing Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme.

“The Pacific labour program will retain primacy, so when this [agriculture visa] program commences with a cap it will be less than the Pacific labour scheme, which has more than 20,000 workers currently in Australia,” he said.

Mr McDonald said a cap was yet to be determined for the new visa, but it would be significantly less than the PALM.

Eligibility criteria

Earlier this month the government released a fact sheet that said the visa program would be established in phases.

“DFAT is working with a select group of employers to bring in a small initial cohort of employees,” it said.

“This will allow us to test systems and processes before the program’s expansion throughout 2022, when we expect a steady increase of employees arriving in Australia.”

Eligibility criteria for employers to participate in the visa scheme is expected to be determined in April.

Once employers are approved they will be required to arrange worker visas, travel and offer “DFAT-approved” accommodation.

A media release from Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and Mr Littleproud from August last year said the visa would be implemented and operationalised over three years.

“During this implementation period we will work to achieve a demand-driven approach and consider permanent residency pathways and regional settlement,” the statement said.

When asked this week if he expected the visa to create a pathway to permanent residency, Mr McDonald said more work would need to done.

“We’re just trying to finalise the first of the bilateral arrangements firstly, so I think that will involve further consultation and design work,” he told the estimates hearing.

The agriculture visa will cover horticulture, dairy, wool, grains, fisheries, forestry and meat processing workers. 

It is expected to cover skilled, semi-skilled and low-skilled workers, but will commence with lower-skilled occupations.

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