The agriculture sector in Australia is highly dependent on overseas workforce, particularly in the thriving horticulture sector in several States and Territories.

Clearly COVID-19 has created significant challenges for the industry, but workforce shortages have existed for many years prior to the pandemic and will persist into the future.  Many of the points made here are therefore relevant to a non-COVID context. COVID-19 has however provided a unique opportunity for reform in this space.

Most pre-existing visa programs are not suitable for the highly seasonal, sporadic, short-term and transient nature, characteristic of the horticulture industry.  Programs that do meet these requirements, such as the Working Holiday Maker (WHM) program, do not provide a stable, sustainable solution for the sector.

Greater capacity to access legal, sustainable sources of low-skilled workers for long and short-term work is desperately needed for producers and employers in the industry. Whether it’s through the extension of existing programs or the creation of new ones, greater access to low-skilled workers will be instrumental to the industry’s growth in the future and reaching $100 billion by 2030.

This policy document discusses migration programs crucial to the horticulture sector, including the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP), the WHM, and the Horticulture Industry Labour Agreement (HILA).  It considers alternative options and new proposals, such as local labour options, a dedicated harvest visa for the horticulture sector, as well as visa status resolution measure for undocumented workers in the industry. It also assesses the impact of COVID-19 on the sector.

The policy poses several recommendations that would resolve shortcomings with pre-existing programs, and others that would assist in the growth of the industry into the future. These recommendations are as follows:

  1. Review in-country vetting processes in SWP partner countries to ensure appropriate workers are selected
  2. Grant producers/employers greater power in selecting workers through the SWP to ensure workers are suitable to available positions
  3. Provide education and training for SWP workers focused on community expectations and basic skills and knowledge in consultation with local officials to overcome language and cultural barriers
  4. Provide funding to regionally based organisations to fulfill pastoral care roles for SWP workers
  5. Review criteria and processes for seasonal worker portability
  6. Develop a government led co-operative model for single approved employers which manages the portability component of their workforce.
  7. Conduct nationwide consultation with employers and workers to identify challenges and improve the WHM program
  8. Consider further measures to improve protections for Working Holiday visa holders during specified work requirements
  9. In lieu of a dedicated harvest visa, investigate the inclusion of low-skilled positions for ‘picking and packing’ roles in the HILA program.
  10. Improve marketing and messaging around the HILA to ensure benefits are properly communicated
  11. Improve access and communication for industry with the Department of Home Affairs to provide greater support for HILA applicants
  12. Establish regional hubs for the Department of Home Affairs where industry can meet officials face to face for assistance
  13. Conduct research to approximate the total demand for low-skilled labour across the agriculture sector to inform program development
  14. Design an agriculture/harvest visa program similar to that proposed by the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance (AFPA)
  15. Design a measure for a timely implementation of undocumented workers in the agriculture industry through a Pandemic Status Resolution visa.

Seasonal Workforce Policy – Dr Anne Webster