Visa Change Proposals Welcomed By Australia's Agricultural Sector

January 26, 2015

Alterations proposed to the skilled migration and temporary activity visa programme in Australia could be a “win-win” for industries based in the country's large rural sector, according to Dale Park, the president of the Western Australia Farmers Federations, or WAFarmers. “Anything that means we are able to employ agricultural workers on more than a one-off basis will be a good thing,” he said in January. “This means employing good workers that we have trained up and that we are already happy with,” he added.

Under the proposed changes, the government is aiming to lessen the burden of unnecessary bureaucracy on Australian farming businesses. The authorities are proposing the implementation of a new skilled visa framework for migrants that is both flexible and responsive. Indeed, according to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection the changes must also be more “supportive” to the needs of agriculture. “This sounds like good news for rural industries,” Mr Park said.

Would-be immigrants to Australia, with the necessary skills and experience in agricultural activities, should note that the government department responsible for visas is already part of the way through a review of skilled migration under the well-known 400-series visa programmes. This includes the much talked about 457 - or skilled labour - visa which allows for residency in the country of up to four years residency. In addition, the 417 and 462 visas, which are designed to cover working holidays, are under review. These are the ones which many visitors to the country who have worked in rural industries have used to enter. According to many in the Australian agricultural sector, these visas have often provided the life blood of labour to rural industries which have been the only things that have allowed them to meet critical, if short-term, labour needs. The current proposal under discussion is to allow for a revised short-term mobility visa which would mean that successful applicants could carry out “specialised and intermittent work” in Australia's countryside for up to one year.

Critics of the proposed changes have pointed out that there would be no requirement for employers to set out their market positions prior to accepting migrant workers, something that they would be obliged to do under the current 457 visa arrangements, for example. These measures are designed to make sure that unemployed Australian citizens are not overlooked when it comes to local employment opportunities. Nevertheless, other so-called public interest criteria would still – in all likelihood – be a part of any relaxation of the visa regulations. In other words, applicants would still be required to meet character and security criteria along with a basic level of health. 

 Under the immigration department's proposals, the special programme agreement and sponsorship processes - which are required under schemes like the 457 visa - will be removed. According to the department, this will make it simpler for employers, particularly rural sector ones, to access the programme. According to WAFarmers, Australians do not want to work on the country's farmland, “so rural industries must rely on workers coming to the country on temporary visas.”

Speaking on behalf of his federation, Mr Park said that once foreign-born workers had established themselves on a farm, then they were usually welcome to return. “If they are skilled workers who want to come back - as well as us wanting them to return - then it is only sensible to enable that to happen,” he said. “This sounds like an improvement to the system.” WAFarmers are one of the organisations in the country which has been advocating for re-entry of certain skilled workers to Australia on successive occasions. The rural federation has called for successful visa applicants who are prepared to work in rural industries to be allowed to return and now looks likely to get its way. 

WAFarmers was one of three bodies from the agricultural sector to give submissions at the panel hearing about the freeing up of the labour market to migrant workers. Additionally, Mr Park put forward the views of his organisation to both the senator of Western Australia and the Assistant Minister of the Immigration and Border Protection, Michaelia Cash, last August. However, despite the success in obtaining the current review, it is not yet clear whether overseas-born abattoir workers will be included in the scheme. This is because some larger employers in the meat processing industry do not think that the changes to visa regulations will be of benefit to that particular sector and because of the “past indiscretions” of some employers.

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