Australian farmers say the move to include thirteen more countries, including India in the Work and Holiday visa program will help ease the labour supply issue - something that many say is crippling the agriculture sector.
Griffith farmer Jaswinder Singh Mavi is in the midst of a very busy picking season. Sourcing labour for the winter picking season for his 300-acre orange farm is a perennial worry for him.
“There have been times when we couldn’t complete picking due to labour shortage and the unpicked fruit had to just rot,” he says.
So far this season, he has had to rely on labour sharing arrangements with others in his family that owns six farms in New South Wales’ Riverina region.
“If we can’t work that out in the family, we have to go labour contractors. But more often than not, even they find it difficult to supply labour during the peak time,” he told SBS Punjabi.
In order to deal with this perennial issue, Australia’s Farmers’ Federation has been asking for a stand-alone visa for the agriculture sector. Despite initially signaling its willingness, the Government has all but killed the proposal. However, the Federal Government is considering a proposal to expand the work and holiday visa to include thirteen countries, including India, to ameliorate the labour crunch in the farming sector.
Mr Mavi says if this becomes reality, his business will greatly benefit from it.
“We have a lot of people from Punjab asking us ‘how can we work in Australian farms’. Despite their work ethic and hardworking nature, we couldn’t hire them even when they were here on a visitor visa.
“But this [including India in work and holiday visa] will be a game-changer for us.”
Even though, many farmers from India might need reskilling to work in Australian farms, Mr Mavi says, it’s the attitude that matters.
“What also matters for us the language. We have had backpackers work for us but communication with them was a huge challenge and that affects the productivity at work,” he said.
A blueberry farmer in New South Wales’ Coffs Harbour area, Amandeep Singh Sidhu says the problem of labour shortage is ‘very severe’.
“Currently, the picking season for us runs for eight months but with new technologies becoming available, some crops are grown all year round.”
Mr Sidhu says the existing arrangements in the form of backpackers visa and seasonal workers visa don’t address this problem.
“Most backpackers work for a few weeks and then they move to another area and look for work elsewhere. And farming being a labour intensive job, backpackers from developed countries don’t like to do it for a long time,” he told SBS Punjabi.
"We train workers for three weeks and if they leave after just a month or a month-and-a-half, that's a big drain on our resources," he says. “But the inclusion of developing countries, such as India and Brazil may solve that problem to some extent because they are likely to be more accustomed to the farming work environment.”
However, Mr Sidhu says their demand for a standalone Ag visa remains.
“This is only a temporary solution to the problem. We know the issue of labour supply for the farming sector will only be resolved with a special visa for this sector,” he said.
Immigration Minister David Coleman rejected suggestions it would turn into a doorway for low-skilled migrants into Australia.
"Work and holiday applicants must meet minimum requirements before a visa can be granted, including having a functional level of English and they must hold or be studying towards tertiary qualifications," the ABC quoted him saying.
Charnamat Singh – a vegetable grower in Victoria’s Kinglake – says lack of English proficiency shouldn’t be an impediment for someone to get this visa.
“During the peak season, we hire 50 to a hundred workers and I am not looking for English skills, but their ability to work in farms and to acquire some skills that are needed to perform their duty,” Mr Singh said.
"If the right people come here, say from countries like India, it's going to be beneficial for us as well as farmers there as the workers will acquire new skills here and when they go back, they'll help the sector in India," he said.
Under the proposal , thirteen countries – India, Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, Switzerland, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Andorra, Monaco and Mongolia may be added to the list of 25 countries that are currently eligible for Work and Holiday visa (subclass 462).