THE federal Government’s plan to scrap the 457 visa stream for skilled workers and replace it with two new temporary visas has been met with industry scepticism about its perceived merits in protecting Australian jobs.
The Turnbull government last week announced it was axing the 457 visa category and will replace it with a temporary skill shortage visa.
Kimberley Meat Company abattoir owner Jack Burton, who opened his operations between Broome and Derby last December, said the reform could prevent new regional businesses such as his from starting up due to a lack of skilled workers.
Mr Burton said access to skilled workers was essential for the beef industry’s continued growth and productivity.
Mr Burton, who runs the only cattle abattoir in northern WA, said starting up today would be difficult because it would be hard to find skilled staff without the 457 visa program being available.
The abattoir employs 30 staff from Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines, including some 457 visa holders.
Mr Burton said in the short-term the business would be able to retain those visa holders, but doing so in the long-term could be more difficult.
“We hope we get some more Australians that want to take the job,” he said.
“We have a few more here now, getting trained.
“As the 457s disappear we will look at hiring more Australians – if we can get them.”
Before the abattoir opened the company had to look for 457 visa holders to fill the gap in skilled workers as there was little interest from locals or others Australians.
“We don’t have any issues right now,” he said.
“But if we had to find 30 meat workers from the east, it would be hard to convince them to come to Broome to work.
“Some businesses need 457 visas as it is an important part of their operation.
“To get underway in a new industry, in a new area, businesses will find it hard.”
However, WAFarmers welcomed the changes as an opportunity for the agricultural industry to address workforce issues.
President Tony York said agriculture across the country was growing and this required sustained continued access to skilled workers.
“There has been a steady stream of skilled workers entering the agricultural sector in recent years on 457 visas, particularly while there was increased competition for skilled labour during the mining construction boom in WA,” he said.
“While overseas workers are vitally important to the agricultural industry, particularly during the peak working season, we believe the sector will welcome the opportunity to train and employ more local workers.
“It is just as important to recognise the skills and potential of the local workforce as it is to acknowledge overseas workers, many of whom come from agricultural backgrounds.
“That said, new restrictions would require applicants to have two years of work experience and higher proficiency in English language skills, amongst other requirements, so we do not want capable workers being disqualified from the new program just because they do not come from farming backgrounds.
“We hope the government’s new visa program will allow the two workforces to complement each other and grow the industry.”
Mr York said WAFarmers agreed with the National Farmers’ Federation that the changes represented an opportunity for a visa program to be tailored to agriculture and address the industry’s workforce needs.
“Further detail is needed on how the changes will affect regional communities and agricultural production, particularly regarding farm labour shortages,” he said.
The Australian Meat Industry Council (AMIC) expressed concern over the lack of consultation and resulting uncertainty following the announcement.
The group said the move had the potential to damage the viability of the industry, which was already under pressure from external challenges, including the worst terms of trade on record, high input costs and increasing regulatory burdens.
AMIC spokesman Patrick Hutchinson said meat processors were the biggest employers in rural and regional Australia, after mining, and the unexpected announcement had sent shockwaves through the industry.
“There are so many questions we simply don’t have answers to and quite frankly, that isn’t good enough,” Mr Hutchinson said.
“We don’t know what occupations will be affected, as outlined by the federal Immigration Minister, and how this will affect the industry.
“We don’t know how the outcomes of the “best and brightest” test will be applied.
“We don’t know what access the sector will have to the training fund.
“There is also a great deal of uncertainty regarding the status of existing 457 visa applications that have not yet been approved.
“Our door is always open and we hope to have the opportunity to sit down with the government on this critical issue so it can provide clarity for the sector.
“In our industry, we need certainty to forward-plan – and that includes being able to plan around employment.”
Mr Hutchinson said unique skill sets were required within the sector and a critical number of these were filled by employees on 457 visas.
“Recruitment of staff always has been and always will be about finding people with the right skill set for the job, who are willing to work within our industry environment in regional and rural Australia,’’ he said.
“AMIC’s focus is on keeping the supply chain moving and, as the peak council for Australia’s post-farm-gate meat industry, we call on the government to have an open and honest conversation with us, to ensure the sector’s longevity and its international competitiveness.
“We are relieved that current 457 visa holders will be unaffected by the announcement.”
Pastoralists and Graziers Association president Tony Seabrook said the industry was still recovering from messy negotiations on the backpacker tax reform proposal last year.
“This is as short-sighted as the backpacker tax debacle,” Mr Seabrook said of the visa reform.
“There are a huge amount of businesses in Australia that have enormous benefit from having access to skilled workers.
“Governments need to recognise a lot of these jobs Australians don’t want to do – its an issue for abattoirs and a range of industries.”
The Sheep Meat Council of Australia and the Cattle Council of Australia called for a considered approach to its proposal to abolish the 457 visa program, to mitigate the potentially detrimental flow-on effects to Australia’s red meat industry.
Cattle Council of Australia president Howard Smith said the meat processing sector was Australia’s biggest food manufacturer and a significant employer in rural and regional areas, employing more than 200,000 Australians.
He said it was imperative that the industry could overcome skill shortages by recruiting international workers.
“Industry has struggled to find domestic workers willing to undertake the processor-related roles and has previously managed the skills shortage by accessing additional labour using the 457 visa program,” Mr Smith said.
“Through effective labour market policies, the Red Meat Industry Strategic Plan outlines that by 2030, from productivity benefits alone, the red meat industry can deliver an additional $2.11 billion to the Australian economy.”
Sheepmeat Council of Australia president Jeff Murray said it wasn’t just the beef industry that would be affected.
“For the sustainability of the entire red meat industry, with a processing sector that is already struggling with record energy prices and regulatory costs, it is crucial that the federal government carefully considers any labour market changes and the potential impact on the industries international competitiveness,” Mr Murray said.