The farm lobby is ramping up its campaign to the federal government for a new category of visa for agricultural workers, arguing critical shortfalls leave some growers no choice but to let produce rot in the field.
National Farmers’ Federation chief executive Tony Mahar said an ag visa would address workforce exploitation concerns and match international workers with farmers who cannot fill jobs with local labour.
An industry report released today said 40 per cent of survey respondents indicated they had not been able to recruit sufficient labour at some point in the past five years and 63pc reported leaving vegetables unpicked.
"A tailored Ag Visa would ensure workers have entered Australia via legal and legitimate means; are working in accordance with visa conditions, and that their presence in the Australian workforce is transparent. Importantly, it would protect against exploitation,” Mr Mahar said.
"Only growers who could demonstrate their compliance with the law would be able to access the program.”
Mr Mahar’s comments followed strong remarks from Assistant Agriculture Minister Richard Colbeck, who said an ag visa was not a viable solution.
“When you start looking at the specifics of labour supply, I don’t think a specific ag visa works. It’s too multifaceted” Senator Colbeck said at the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences on Wednesday.
Mr Colbeck contradicted the most recent comments from the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who said in October there was “no doubt” the government would develop an ag visa.
Mr Mahar said a three-year farm workforce study, released today, showed lack of legitimate workers pushed growers to rely on undocumented migrants who are vulnerable to exploitation.
Towards a Durable Future: Tackling Labour Challenges in the Australian Horticulture Industry was written by University of South Australia Law Professor Dr Joanna Howe and commissioned by VegetablesWA and NFF.
Some farmers are being forced to choose between leaving their produce on the vine to rot and breaking the law, a new report has found.
The report was led by University of South Australia, Law Professor Dr Joanna Howe, commissioned by VegetablesWA and supported by the National Farmers’ Federation.
Mr Mahar said the report highlighted bad behaviour by producers and made for uncomfortable reading. He said lack of legitimate workers exacerbated the use of at-risk migrants and said an ag visa was the best way to regulate the industry.
"By far the majority of farmers who don't comply do so inadvertently or because they feel their only other option is to let their crop spoil and therefore forsake a year's income,” he said.
"Dr Howe confirms the stark reality that some growers feel they are forced to rely upon ‘undocumented’ migrants who work and remain in Australia, in breach of their visa conditions and to engage in practices which do not comply with Australian labour standards.
"‘Undocumented’ workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, sometimes by the growers themselves, but more often at the hands of rogue ‘labour hire’ operators.”
Thkis week the federal government released the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce Report, led by Taskforce chairman Allan Fels.
The government has accepted all 22 recommendations which include workers including criminal sanctions for ‘serious and egregious’ deliberate exploitation, giving more teeth to the Fair Work Ombudsma and a new National Labour Hire Registration Scheme.
Peak vegetable grower body Ausveg welcomed the report, particularly the commitment to a national labour hire licensing system
“The horticulture industry relies heavily on labour hire to supply a workforce, and the majority of growers and labour hire contractors do the right thing and look after their workers,” said Ausveg public affairs manager Tyson Cattle.
“The measures announced today will support our growers by making our entire sector a fairer, safer and more attractive workplace for migrant workers.”