Wednesday 25 February 2015 | Published in Regional
Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop announced the Seasonal Worker Programme would offer an additional 1000 placements to more than 4200 people.
Workers on the programme are from the Pacific and East Timor (Timor Leste) and can work on farms for up to six months a year.
Andrew Macdonald, a spokesman for lobby group AUSVEG, said his organisation supported the changes.
“Labour issues are an ongoing issue within the Australian horticulture sector on many vegetable and potato growing operations,” he said.
“So we do support any initiatives that provide a greater pool of workers, a larger workforce that is available for growers to get on and get the job done.”
The current program allows for 3250 permits per year, with the changes taking effect in July.
Bishop, in a statement, said the programme allowed participants to send much-needed money back home.
“Due to high demand for employees in the agriculture sector and difficulties filling positions with Australian workers, we have increased access for overseas workers by removing the arbitrary caps on other sectors put in place by the previous government,” she said.
“These changes will allow Australian businesses to better meet the demand for seasonal workers, while also providing valuable economic opportunities for more workers from the Pacific islands and Timor Leste.”
Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) president Ged Kearney said she wanted strict guidelines to prevent the exploitation of foreign workers.
“By and large, unions are supportive of the Seasonal Worker Programme and we were very happy with the safeguards that were put in place around it,” she said.
“Increasing it by a small amount may well reflect the needs of our farmers using the programme. However, unions have a concern very broadly about the welfare of migrant workers generally.
“We have been hearing terrible examples lately about how migrant workers have been exploited.”
Last month, Unions Tasmania told ABC Rural about its concerns with the living and working conditions of Tongan fruit pickers in the state’s north-west.
The Fair Work Ombudsman is in the middle of a three-year investigation into fruit and vegetable growing industries and alleged labour-hire rorts.
Kearney said she heard reports of migrant workers that received 60 cents an hour and paid “exorbitant rent” despite living in crowded accommodation.
She said the ACTU wanted a Senate inquiry into the migrant worker programmes.
“The reason we are calling for a Senate inquiry into the migrant worker programme across the board is that unemployment is at 6.4 per cent,” Kearney said.
“Overall youth unemployment is around 14 per cent and in some isolated areas it goes as high as 20 per cent.
“We want to see what we call labour market testing, which is where employers have to advertise locally for local people to come and fill those jobs before they can give those jobs away to migrant workers. We don’t think that’s asking too much.”
Macdonald said AUSVEG wanted the Federal Government to expand the programme to allow workers from Thailand and Vietnam.
He said AUSVEG also wanted an expansion of the work holiday visa programme to allow people from the Czech Republic, Israel and Indonesia to apply.
“The fact is that these jobs are there, they are regularly there, they are available, but despite this Australian farms are often still grappling with labour shortages,” Macdonald said.
“That’s why we do welcome programmes like the Seasonal Worker Programme, the ongoing source of backpackers coming to Australia and taking up work on properties.
“We really do feel that these assist farmers in filling labour shortages and getting the job done during peak seasons.”