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The farm sector is not immune from labour shortages. So when the Federal Government this week scrapped the 457 visa, agriculture, like many other industries, held its breath.
The Government plans to replace the 457 visa or the Temporary Work (Skilled) visa (subclass 457), as it’s more correctly known, with the new Temporary Skill Shortage (TSS) visa - effective March 2018.
The fact is, the 457 visa did not adequately address the skill gaps confronting agriculture. To this extent, the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) hopes the refinement of temporary visa arrangements signifies an opportunity to better to help farmers recruit the skilled workers they need.
Agriculture is a $60 billion-plus industry, the work is fulfilling and there are great career opportunities available. However the rural and remote nature of many agricultural businesses mean that the sector faces particular challenges in attracting workers.
A report by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation in 2016, found that skilled immigrants make an important contribution to the agriculture sector by filling vacancies and bringing with them expertise from pre-immigration employment.
Migrants are helping to redress problems of intergenerational succession and enriching domestic knowledge and skill by introducing new technological insights gained from overseas to apply to Australian farming. An example provided in that report is African farmers who bring experience with water-saving farming techniques.
...at 30 September 2016 there were a total of 680 visa holders in Australia in the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector with 220 visas granted in 2016-17...Kimberly Pearsall, NFF
Through the Seasonal Worker and Working Holiday Maker Programme migrants also play a critical role in providing a large and mobile workforce to meet seasonal labour demands associated with sectors where produce is perishable and/or dictated by growing seasons.
The NFF has long aired about access to Australia’s skilled migration programs. The skills required for work in agriculture are broad and commonly learned on the job - not through formal education.
The Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations (ANZSCO) that, underpins the skilled occupation lists determining eligibility for skilled visas, lacks capacity to accommodate the needs of the agriculture sector.
Looking at the statistics on use of the 457 visa program, at 30 September 2016 there were a total of 680 visa holders in Australia in the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector with 220 visas granted in 2016-17. These statistics are indicative of the low capacity for the current skilled migration programs to address agriculture’s skill shortage.
From what we know so far, it looks like the changes to the skilled occupation list as part of the Government’s announcement to replace the 457 visa may not address these longstanding issues. Further changes have been flagged and only time will tell whether these will better meet the needs of the agriculture sector. Additional occupations to support regional employers have been signposted and we look for specification of these. Of concern is the removal of many agricultural occupations from the eligibility lists and the restriction of others to the short term visa stream of two years, with an option for renewal once only where previously they have been eligible for the full, four year visa period.
Our sector’s productivity and competitiveness relies on access to an adequately-resourced and skilled-labour pool. Migrant workers play a significant role in fulfilling this pool.Kimberly Pearsall, NFF
The changes to the occupation lists have taken effect immediately, as of 19 April 2017 and appear to apply to all new visas, whether lodged before or after 19 April, while existing visas will not be impacted unless an application is made for a further subclass 457 visa or there is a change of occupation or employer. For now, it looks like the pork and dairy industry labour agreements will remain in place.
Further changes to the occupations lists, English language requirements and the age requirement have been foreshadowed from 1 July 2017. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection will commence the collection of Tax File Numbers for visa holders before 31 December 2017 and data will be matched with the Australian Tax Office’s records to inspect payment of visa holders. The new Temporary Skills Shortage visa will take effect from March 2018 with a number of additional requirements.
Prime Minister Turnbull has emphasised that an important component of the temporary visa ‘shake up’ is more training programs for Australians, tailored to address areas where there are pronounced skills gaps. We welcome such an initiative.
The agriculture sector continually invests in programs to attract, recruit, train and retain skilled workers within Australia. And so in this respect, we support the principal of an “Australian’s first” approach.
However such measures are not the only answer to ag’s labour needs – certainly not for the foreseeable future. Our sector’s productivity and competitiveness relies on access to an adequately-resourced and skilled-labour pool. Migrant workers play a significant role in fulfilling this pool.
For now, we continue to explore the details of this week’s changes, in a bid to put together a picture of what the new visa will look like and how it will impact on agriculture.
Kimberly Pearsall is a policy advisor with the National Farmers' Federation, specialising in workplace relations.
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