In a major immigration policy change, international students working in the agriculture sector will now be allowed to work more than their usual 40 hours per fortnight limit during semesters.
Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud on Monday announced that the government is providing more flexibility to encourage temporary visa holders, including international students, to support Australian farmers struggling to find workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Many regions are expecting bumper crops this year, but with COVID-19 travel restrictions international movement, there still aren't enough workers available.
“This complements a range of other workforce measures we are delivering to support farmers this harvest season," Minister Littleproud said.
- Student visa holders working in the agriculture sector can work for more than 40 hours a fortnight
- It will also be easier for temporary visa holders to access the COVID-19 Pandemic Event visa
- The temporary changes arrangements have been made to address the labour shortage in the sector
Minister Littleproud said the changes will allow student visa holders to work more than the usual 40 hours per fortnight limit during semesters if they are working in the agriculture sector.
“This builds on changes earlier this year for international students working in the health and aged care sector, and demonstrates the government's commitment to supporting Australian farmers and visa holders wishing to take on more work while they live and study here," he said.
Easier to access COVID-19 Pandemic visa:
Migrants make up 80 per cent of the harvest workforce, but these numbers have plummeted ever since Australia snapped shut its international borders in March to contain the coronavirus outbreak.
Newly-appointed Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the changes will also make it easier for temporary visa holders to access the COVID-19 Pandemic Event visa (Subclass 408) - a free of cost pathway available for applicants who cannot depart due to the current travel restrictions.
“These temporary visa holders are already in Australia, many do not want to or cannot go home, and they will be greatly valued in the agriculture sector.
“It will also be easier for temporary visa holders to access the COVID-19 Pandemic Event visa if they choose to work in the agriculture sector," Minister Hawke added.
Over 5600 COVID-19 Pandemic Event visas have been granted to support the farming sector since the pathway was introduced in April 2020.
Those who meet the eligibility criteria will now be able to apply for this visa up to 90 days before their existing visa runs out and they do not need to demonstrate their attempts to depart the country.
Labour shortage in the horticulture sector:
Minister Hawke said while the Morrison government will continue to give priority to Australians for jobs, these changes have been made to address the growing concerns of the farming community reeling under a critical worker deficit which is estimated to swell up to 26,000 vacant farmworker jobs by March this year.
The grim forecast had further resulted in a prediction of a 15 to 25 per cent jump in the price of some fresh fruit and vegetables by government analyst ABARES in December.
In an interview with ABC News, ABARES chief analyst Jared Greenville last month said that the labour shortage and other COVID-induced market conditions are expected to affect retail prices in the new year.
"Prices of most horticulture products hitting wholesale markets have been pretty steady and as expected, but what we do know is that peak period for harvest and peak labour demand kicks off in February.
"That could put at risk some harvests in some areas, so we're expecting prices to potentially rise between 15 to 25 per cent for some products,” Mr Greenville said.
Farming industry welcomes the decision:
Charnamat Singh, a vegetable grower in Victoria’s Kinglake who is in the midst of a busy picking season said the announcements regarding students could not have come at a better time.
“The agriculture community will hugely benefit from this decision especially at a time when we are in the middle of the picking and packing season when most labour is required,” Mr Singh told SBS Punjabi.
He said the move will encourage international students who otherwise prefer to work in other industries to pick up seasonal farming work which can be a long-term solution to the perennial issue of labour shortage in the horticulture industry.
“Most farms rely on backpackers who pick work for a very short period. If this relaxation is made permanent in the future, it will hopefully attract more students to consider seasonal farming jobs or even persuade them to make careers in this field- something that usually doesn’t happen,” Mr Singh said.
Besides those employed in the agriculture sector, these student visa holders can also work extra hours:
- Employed by an aged care Approved Provider or Commonwealth-funded aged care service provider with a RACS ID or a NAPS ID, before 8 September 2020
- Employed by a registered National Disability Insurance Scheme provider
- Enrolled in a healthcare-related course and you are supporting the health effort against COVID-19, as directed by health officials
The Department of Home Affairs has advised that these are temporary measures and will be reviewed by the government regularly. Employers will be advised when these measures no longer apply.
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