Article by: Hari Yellina
Citrus growers have been advised not to rely on the Australian ag visa as a resolution to the labour crisis this season. The ag visa could take a year to fully execute, according to attendees at the Citrus Technical Forum 2022 on the Sunshine Coast on March 8 and 9. Growers were encouraged to embrace the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme, which required longer-term planning. It goes against the grain of growers relying on seasonal workers, such as backpackers, to pick and pack fruit. Citrus Australia CEO Nathan Hancock described the ag visa as a “complex procedure” during his presentation at the conference.
He estimated that it would take at least 12 months for any prospective on-farm implementation to be visible when the present ongoing negotiations with participating countries were finished, followed by a trial of the programme. Mr Hancock explained, “It’s a lot more involved than the Working Holiday Maker Program.” “In 2022, the ag visa will have no effect. I don’t think we’ll be able to land anyone in Australia for the citrus season. In 2022, it’s not going to happen. “We are highly invested in its success, but I believe you should put that to the back of your mind for 2022.”
Michael Ryan, director of the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment’s agricultural workforce agricultural policy division, also spoke at the conference, giving an update on the government’s $87 million ag visa programme, saying that participating countries, with the exception of Indonesia, did not want to be named at this time. Mr Ryan went over the details of the ag visa, emphasising that growers should not wait for the visa and instead act on labour needs as they arise. The ag visa, according to the government, will complement, rather than replace, the existing array of temporary migration goods available to industry. When improving the ag visa, he said language skills and housing were two important factors that were carefully considered.
“It’s a real balance between trying to provide for a workforce that has English language skills that enable them to navigate the workplace, navigate the community, and work effectively,” Mr Ryan said. “At the same time, we recognise that school education is not always high in the communities we’re looking to draw workers from, and trying to get a high level of skills is a real challenge.” He also urged the sector to seize control of the labour shortage and transform it into an asset. “It’s your sector’s reputation, and you should be protective of it,” he added, adding that “you should make yourself an appealing business for people to come and work in.” Industries really need to grapple with the challenges as there is only so much the government can do in terms of providing the framework for people.