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Australian farmers push for new 'ag visa'

Labour shortages, mountains of paperwork and uncertainty

Aussie fruit and vegetable growers say a lack of workers is keeping a lid on industry growth and leaving hundreds of tonnes of fruit at risk of being left on the ground every year. Many are hoping a promised 'agricultural visa' for foreign farm workers will solve industry labour woes by allowing farms to hire a dedicated overseas workforce on a temporary basis.

In late August, the National Party promised the visa would be delivered in "days, not weeks", forcing senior Liberals to put the plan on ice saying it would cause diplomatic problems with governments in the Pacific.

The industry already has access to an existing scheme, the Seasonal Worker Program (SWP), designed to allow farmers to bring workers in from the Pacific and Timor Leste. Leaders in those countries fear a new 'ag visa' would stifle opportunities for their people if farmers were to move away from the SWP.

Figures from the Department of Jobs and Small Business show 6,166 workers entered Australia on the SWP in 2016/17, and 4,402 had entered between July 2017 and January 2018.

But some growers say the scheme was too rigid and inflexible for the often unpredictable nature of harvest time. "Anything would be better than a Seasonal Workers Program. Anything,” said one grower. "We've applied for the Seasonal Workers Program a number of times and didn't know whether we were going to get our returning staff until three weeks before we needed them. So nothing can be more hopeless than that now, can it?"

According to¸farmers hope the new 'ag visa' would be flexible enough to allow workers to return year-on-year, for say three to five years, before renewal was needed. This would address their concerns around having to train people every year - from scratch - during their busy harvest season.

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