The Australian government is urging horticulture workers not to delay worker recruitment strategies to wait on the introduction of the 'Ag Visa'.
The Australian Agriculture Visa program was announced last year, with the aim of addressing workforce shortages in the sector and trying to build a stable and sustainable workforce into the future. But Michael Ryan from the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment (DAWE) explains that the process of trying to get the new program off of the ground is taking time.
"We have commenced discussions with a number of South-East Asian countries, and recruitment should start shortly after the negotiations complete," he said. "It is a new program and the parameters are being carefully considered in the bilateral discussions and there is an extensive exchange of information about our system of process and their system of processes. A lot of these countries are experienced in sending labour and they have their own requirements and institutions built up around that, and working through that and coming to an understanding about how that moves forward is taking some time. One of the key messages is that if you need labour, don't delay recruitment actions to wait for the Agriculture Visa. There are other alternative sources such as the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme which has a large pool to work from and established pathways to bring people in. When the Ag Visa starts up, there is a small group of employers who will be the initial people we work with. We will use the initial phase to test our systems and process and gradually ramp up the program and expand it. But I want to reiterate, the importance of planning your workforce and not delaying recruitment to wait for the Ag Visa. You need to act on your needs as they arise."
Mr Ryan added that it is important to note that the Agriculture ag visa supplements and does not replace schemes such as the PALM Scheme or the Horticulture Industry Labour Agreement, which will continue to be available to industry to source workers.
"Broadly, when the program was announced, it was positioned as a short-term, seasonal visa program with strong feedback from stakeholders that it needed to provide for longer-term cohorts as well," Mr Ryan said. "So, the Visa will provide for seasonal short-term cohorts of up to nine months, and also workers of one to four years. It will provide access to a range of low-skilled to high-skilled positions and a broad range of primary production. Also some key support services for primary production and moving into the primary processing sphere. I guess the government is also considering permanent residency pathways, but that will take more time to develop and the government will be consulting on that later in the year."
Photo: Michael Ryan presenting at the recent Citrus Technical Forum
Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia had a large mobile workforce, where the key concern for producers was reliability and productivity, rather than availability. But when Australia closed its borders to international travel, the pool of Working Holiday Maker (WHM) shrunk dramatically, which put strain and pressure on the growing and harvesting of crops right across the horticulture sector. But Mr Ryan expects labour availability should start to ease in the medium term, with the announcement of rebate on visa charges for current holders to bring travel forward for fully vaccinated people, and the development of the Ag Visa.
"How do you participate (in the Ag Visa scheme) as an employer? There will be three pathways," Mr Ryan explains. "People who are already accredited under the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme will be accredited for the Agriculture Visa. There will also be a number of certification schemes accredited with the program, and people accredited under those schemes will be able to be accredited for the Ag Visa subject to financial compliance, workplace compliance, immigration compliance and history checks. The third mechanism will be the development of a standalone approval scheme, just recognising that industry access to certification schemes in the horticulture sphere isn't universal for everyone."
As with the PALM scheme, employers utilising the Agriculture Visa will need to enter an agreement with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), which contains a number of responsibilities and obligations, including workplace standards, minimum hours and accommodation standards. Employers will have to provide a letter with an offer including conditions and wages, which will need to be approved.
For more information and details on obligations for potential Ag Visa employers visit: www.dfat.gov.au/agriculturevisa
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
Phone: +61 2 6261 1111