By Growcom CEO David Thomson

Accessing the right labour at the right time is an ongoing issue for many horticulture commodities and we are currently reliant on a mish-mash of visas to provide access to seasonal workers.

We were greatly heartened by Agriculture Minister David Littleproud’s comments at last week’s Rural Press Club lunch affirming his commitment to a stand-alone agriculture visa.

Whilst Mr Littleproud did not provide additional detail, he indicated that government was aiming to initiate a trial later this year.

Growcom has been working closely with the National Farmers’ Federation through their new horticulture council to flesh-out the details of a potential agriculture visa.

The horticulture sector is primarily seeking a short-term visa low-skill visa stream (6 to 9 months, with a “multiple entry” component) to meet seasonal labour shortages.

“Portability” is fundamental to the success of such a visa whereby entrants would be permitted to move between employers (provided they remain working in the agriculture sector) during their visa stay. The visa would not be employer-sponsored or feature labour market testing.

We also contend that only employers who can demonstrate appropriate and sustainable workplace practices should be able to access visa workers and one mechanism to achieve this would be through the Fair Farms certification scheme. 

We currently have a situation whereby many overseas workers come here to work on farms but because the visa settings are not right, work illegally and are complicit in their own exploitation. 

Obviously, we would prefer to employ Australians but despite incentive programs to entice local workers into these unskilled roles, the highly seasonal and volatile nature of the industry makes it challenging to recruit local workers.

That said, many horticulture enterprises are significant regional employers and being able to access unskilled workers means they can provide employment of local people in longer-term positions.

Fundamental to our support of an agriculture visa is the commitment not to take any of the current options, such as the one-year extension to the working holiday maker visa, off the table.

Ultimately we need to ensure the new visa is delivering the workers we need, when we need them and these workers are subject to the highest ethical employment standards.