Ag visa program failing to deliver workers for the industry
North Queensland vegetable grower Carl Walker says the Australian government needs to "stop chasing people out of the country."
The call comes as Australia's agricultural supply chains have been left short-staffed due to workers in isolation from testing positive to COVID-19, being deemed a close contact or awaiting test results.
The industry had already been struggling to find enough workers prior to the widespread transmission of COVID-19, a problem that was meant to be alleviated by a new ag visa program.
However, no countries have signed up in the six months since the program was launched.
Mr Walker, who is the president of the Bowen Gumlu Growers Association, said the ag visa announced by the federal government in September 2021 was a 'white elephant'.
"It is bloody disappointing; it could have been a game-changer," he said.
"I think it was purely a political ploy rather than an intellectual solution."
Mr Walker said while he thought border restrictions were the right call at the time, he was supportive of the country opening up again now the virus was so widespread.
He said excluding standard immigration figures, Australia usually had between 100,000 to 150,000 visa holders in the country.
There were significantly less people in the country to work at present, he said, and Australia's long-term unemployed were never going to work in the horticultural industry.
"The biggest problem we've had, and this has been a government problem, is when they told visa holders to bugger off," Mr Walker said.
"It's a double whammy; we're not getting people coming into the country and we have people leaving."
Mr Walker said it would have been more beneficial for people on visas to be granted an open visa until travel restrictions ceased.
Another problem that has been raised is the rural transport industry has been left out of the ag visa program.
This has left some operators struggling to find drivers - who often come from New Zealand, Europe or the United Kingdom - to work in this specialised sector servicing the agricultural industry.
Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud laid the blame for the delay at the feet of the Australian Workers Union, who have been warning embassies with stories of worker abuse within agricultural seasonal worker programs.
"[It's] the most disgraceful act I have seen in my political career, to deliberately sabotage a program that is there to help Australian farmers, to demonise Australian farmers, that they are some sort of exploitation racket that goes right across Australian agriculture in a generalised way, is disgraceful," Mr Littleproud said.
"Now, yes, there is a small cohort in agriculture that has done the wrong thing. We are weeding them out with more regulation and higher penalties."
Mr Littleproud revealed the government was talking with four South East Asian countries, with Indonesia the only country that wanted to identify itself as being in negotiations.
"[Foreign Minister] Marise Payne will hopefully be able to give us some good news in the coming couple of weeks that one, two, or three of those countries have signed up," Mr Littleproud said.
"So I can't give you that assurance, but we are now getting some clear air, because we've told the AWU to bugger off."
Murphy, J., & Labinsky, M. (2022, January 26). Ag visa program failing to deliver workers for the industry. North Queensland Register. https://www.northqueenslandregister.com.au/story/7590313/ag-visa-program-a-white-elephant/?cs=4770