Words // Carmen Miller
Since the first confirmed case of Coronavirus on Australian shores in January 2020, the realities of a constantly diminishing workforce have become an inherent element of farmers’ and primary producers’ post-pandemic lives.
However, in what has been labelled by the National Farmers’ Federation as “a monumental commitment”, the Federal Government has delivered on the long-awaited Ag Visa, to provide “real, long-term workforce relief to Australian farmers”.
The Ag Visa, as announced by Minister Littleproud, will widen the recruitment opportunities for an uncapped number of low to highly skilled workers from ASEAN countries and will be operational from September 30 this year.
NFF President Fiona Simson praised the announcement, stating such proactive steps forward went a long way to further bolstering the agricultural industry.
“There is no question an inadequate workforce is a [handbrake] to agriculture’s growth and to the prosperity of the regional communities who depend on the farm sector,” Ms Simson said.
“To be most effective, the visa must allow workers to move between farms based on work demand.
“Solving agriculture’s worker deficit is of paramount importance to agriculture achieving a farm gate output value of $100 billion by 2030 and a key component of NFF’s 2030 Roadmap.”
And while such a commitment has been a long time coming, Queensland Minister for Agricultural Industry Development and Fisheries Mark Furner raised concerns overthe lack of detail provided thus far.
“The commonwealth has just 38 days (at time of interview) to provide us with the details and get arrangements in place to meet their own September deadline,” Mr Furner said.
“It’s time for the Federal Government to actually deliver for Queensland farmers, starting with the details on how this visa system will work.”
In Far North Queensland particularly, the labour shortage has been felt far and wide.
In a detailed journalistic investigation undertaken by Amy Spear of the Australian Banana Growers’ Council, the devastating impact of labour shortages were highlighted.
For Franziska Inderbitzin of Swiss Farms, located in Lakeland, the future of the industry is precarious to say the least, with the lack of specific details surrounding the Ag Visa doing little to raise her hopes.
“There’s so much uncertainty out there and our industry is so labour intensive,” Mrs Inderbitzin stated.
“If we can’t find the right staff then I think there’s a real risk we won’t be viable.”
The Australian Banana Growers’ Council (ABGC) themselves are reserving judgement on the Ag Visa, stating that they welcomed the announcement, but are waiting with bated breath to learn more on how the new arrangements would be rolled out.
“At this stage we don’t have much detail on the workings of the new visa, including sponsor arrangements with these workers or how we will be getting them onto farms,” said ABGC Chair Stephen Lowe.
“Quarantine arrangements will also be a big issue, and so we will also be counting on the state governments to ensure we have workable quarantine measures in place, to allow safe arrival of workers without delay.”
Mr Lowe said the ABGC would be ensuring it was across the Ag Visa rollout, to help guarantee the best outcomes for banana growers nationally.
“Most growers are soldiering on, but unless we can develop strong policy and a clear way forward to address this worker crisis, many could face an uncertain future.”
And while politicians and the powers that be work to flesh out the finer details, the feeling on the ground amongst farmers and primary producers is unanimous.
With a cleverly executed rollout of the Ag Visa and strong foundational support, agriculture in Far North Queensland and the nation as a whole can deliver stability and growth at a time when it’s needed most.
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