Working holidaymakers feel forgotten amid agricultural visa push for farm workers


Some farm workers who arrived in Australia on working holidaymaker visas say they feel undervalued and unwanted as the federal government spruiks a plan for South-East Asian immigrants to make up for the labour shortfall.

Agirculture Minister David Littleproud said the agricultural visa would include an unspecified number of ASEAN nations and begin next month, but backpackers on uncertain annual visa extensions said they had been forgotten.

Jill Cordier — a French working holidaymaker and experienced wine grape worker — said she wanted a pathway to residency but was worried about her future despite her skills and two-and-a-half years in Australia.

“In vineyards, they struggle to find workers. For pickers and all other kinds of vineyard jobs, there is plenty of work,” she said.

“I thought at first it was going to be easier [to gain permanent residency] because of [COVID-19] — Australia needs workers, and especially in agriculture, but it’s not easy. It’s a long process.”

Having worked vintages in Margaret River, Ms Cordier relocated to North Queensland this year to work in hospitality during the off-season.

However, after a year working with a migration agent in Perth, she wants to return to Western Australia soon to try to find a sponsor for a permanent visa, a process she estimated could take another two or three years to complete.

Ms Cordier guessed that about half of the estimated 30,000 backpackers still in Australia 18 months after the pandemic began wanted to stay and become residents.

Certainty needed

Many backpackers continue to work on Australian farms, despite tens of thousands departing the nation since early 2020.(

AAP: Dan Peled

)

Last year the federal government told temporary migrants in Australia to leave as fears grew about the spread of COVID-19 and the potential strain on the public health system.

While the government has promised to consider permanent residency pathways for ASEAN agricultural workers, working holidaymakers who have already spent years working on farms, like Ms Cordier, feel they have been left out.

Bowen-Gumlu Growers Association president Carl Walker said it was not good enough that the nation could coldly turn its back on educated, skilled young workers.

“Unfortunately, there seems to be something in the federal government where they want these visa holders to go home, which is insane,” he said.

“We’re lacking skilled and unskilled people enormously in Australia, all these kids travelling Australia are highly-skilled, from engineers to doctors, nurses and those unskilled ones are happy doing farm work.

Mr Walker said that — with the cost of importing workers beyond the means of Australia’s small and medium farm businesses — all working holidaymakers should be given the ability to apply for permanent residency after two years.

workers in the field picking broccoli and placing it in a large, blue bin on the back of a tractor
More than 2,000 Pacific Islander workers have arrived in Queensland since 2020 under strict, expensive quarantine arrangements.(

ABC Rural: Tom Major

)

However, National Farmers’ Federation chief executive Tony Mahar said people under the working holidaymaker scheme should find other visas if they wished to stay.

“If backpackers develop different intentions, they should explore other visa arrangements, the [agricultural] visa may be one of these,” he said.

Minister says work underway

Mr Littleproud said that, with 2,000 working holidaymakers leaving each month, statistics showed many wanted to return to their home countries and families, despite incentive schemes and visa extensions.

“The programs we’ve put to incentivise them to stay, there’s been 4,500 taking up that program and 75 per cent are backpackers,” he said.

A middle-aged, brown-haired man wearing black-rimmed glasses, a blue suit, white shirt and a navy tie
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud says pathways to residency for working holidaymakers would depend on new bilateral agreements being forged.(

ABC News: Matt Roberts

)

However, the minister promised work was underway to restructure the agricultural workforce in Australia while keeping as many workers in the country as possible.

“We are trying to work through any way we can to keep those that are here, already in the agricultural system,” he said.

Mr Littleproud said any changes to the Pacific and Seasonal Worker programs  needed to consider the impact on societies and the culture of those nations.

“We have to be careful not to make policy settings here that would be detrimental to the Pacific family,” he said. “We’re working with those Pacific nations around what that social construct would look like.”


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