“Now I depend on backpackers and overseas students”

Published: August 2018 | By: Beverley Hadgraft

Thousands of migrants are keen to work on our farms. The problem is that all the red tape makes it hard for agriculture to employ them. Here four farmers share their frustrations and solutions.

Cherry grower Guy Gaeta relies on backpackers like Sabrina Monibello from Italy at harvest time.
TWO years ago, Central Tablelands orchardist Guy Gaeta was at a Senate inquiry. “They asked me why I don’t employ Australians,” he recalls. “I just laughed. I said: ‘You find them, I’ll employ them. I’ll employ anyone who comes down my driveway’.” 

Guy, a member of NSW Farmers’ Horticulture Committee, grows apples and cherries near Orange. Every December about 50 backpackers walk down his driveway to pick his cherries. Until 2000, he mainly employed Australians and preferred that. “I could train them and they’d come back every year.” But suddenly, the locals stopped turning up.

Guy was mystified. Cherry picking had always provided a welcome source of pre-Christmas cash. He advertised on the radio, reaching out as far as Parkes and Cowra, but didn’t get a single response. He hoped the new Seasonal Workers Incentives Trial introduced last July might help. The trial allows job seekers to earn up to $5,000 undertaking seasonal horticultural work without affecting their Centrelink payments. But it hasn’t made any difference. 


With the exception of four New Zealanders who turn up most summers, Guy now depends on backpackers and overseas students from the local university to harvest his crop. Without labourers like them, he says, we would have a national food shortage, and it makes him mad when he hears reports about labour hire contractors ripping migrant workers off. 

“Farmers need all these accreditations, those contractors should have accreditation, too,” he says. While Guy won’t use contractors himself, he doesn’t blame farmers who sign them up in the hope of reducing paperwork and the need to check visas. 

“We only employ 50 pickers and it takes my wife Simonetta hours to go online and check them all. Imagine what a waste of time it is for those farmers who employ 500.”

Guy says he would prefer to pay per lug ($13 for 7-8kg of cherries), instead of per hour, but regulations don’t allow him to do this.

 
Guy’s neighbour Peter West also uses backpackers for his cherry and apple harvests, but has recently been supplementing his labour force with workers from Vanuatu through the Seasonal Worker Programme. “They’re better than backpackers, more appreciative of the work, more conscientious and – in their 20s and 30s – a bit older,” Peter says.

Backpacker numbers have been dropping off, he says, and once the colder weather arrives, they disappear north. The seasonal workers are more reliable and the administration is easier with government-​certified labour hire companies doing the paperwork and sorting out accommodation. 

“I can see myself making more use of the program in the future,” he says. The only downside is he has to guarantee a minimum amount of work and says it would only take a hailstorm to wipe out a crop and he’d be in trouble.  
 

ATTRACTING MIGRANTS FOR REGIONAL FARM WORK 

Despite the arrival of new technology, manual labour is still in big demand on many farms and with cities complaining about overcrowding, the use of willing migrants seems a no-brainer.

A think tank called the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) is one of a number of organisations lobbying for initiatives to make this easier. The RAI wants to attract an additional 2,000 to 3,000 migrants a year to priority rural areas, pointing out that unemployment among foreign-born workers in remote areas is 2.5%, as opposed to 6.5% in major cities where there is supposedly more work.

In May this year, the RAI hosted an event at Parliament House in Canberra to explain to politicians the transformational effect migrants can have on agricultural business. Examples included a piggery in Victoria that had the confidence to expand after employing 24 Filipinos on migration visas, and a poultry business that was saved from going under after the arrival of 50 Karen refugees from Myanmar.

The National Farmers’ Federation is also pushing for an agriculture specific visa to bring in foreign workers to do jobs not already catered for by the existing visa framework, and to provide a pathway to permanency if migrants want it. 

However, the scheme needs to strike the right balance, says NSW Farmers’ workplace relations manager Gracia Kusuma. Stories of mistreatment of foreign workers and the Australian-first party line are at the forefront of politicians’ minds. 


FARMERS CALL FOR AN AGRICULTURAL VISA

Western NSW sheep farmer Tony Brown is among those who would welcome an agricultural visa, open to those who have a real interest in the land. For the past few years, he’s had a backpacking couple from rural Estonia who have come to work on his sheep farm, staying six months before their visa forces them to move on. Tony can leave them to work unassisted, driving earth-moving machinery, de-silting dams, fencing and handling livestock. 

“They’re excellent workers and would love to get permanent residency and settle into farming life,” he says. “However, they’re finding it desperately hard to get a visa because they need a degree and to show they’re highly skilled. But farmers like me don’t need highly skilled. We need people who are good-natured and motivated.”

Tony generally struggles to find labour for his property 400km from Broken Hill, between White Cliffs and Wanaaring. He says backpackers who just want their 88 days of farm work to qualify for a second year on their working holiday visa can’t learn enough in that time. 
It takes him that long to train them, so he insists they stay at least six months. Once they can work independently, he’s happy to pay them accordingly. 

*READ other stories about NSW farmers adapting during dry conditions:
Growing profits behind the wire
Going for growth with goats 
- Young gun farmer creates drought lifesavers 


MIGRANTS HELPING FARMERS WITH LABOUR SHORTAGES 

Julia Harpham, a cattle farmer in Mingoola, on the NSW-Queensland border, was one of the farmers who joined the RAI in Canberra. Back in 2011, she started pushing for young people to relocate to her 80-family settlement. 

“Where we live it is so hard to get labour,” she says. “We can get contract musterers, but getting people to help with day to day work like fencing or cutting regrowth is impossible.” 

In addition, the school was threatened with closure and Julia says the thought of Mingoola without children around was just too depressing. “We tried Australian-born city dwellers, but that didn’t work,” she says. “We kept thinking there must be refugees who had come from a rural or remote background who would love to leave the city.”

With the help of refugee advocate Emmanuel Musoni she put out feelers. Within weeks she had a waiting list of 50 families whose dream was to live in a rural area and be able to grow their own food, as they had done at home. Finally, three large families of African refugees (Mingoola didn’t have housing for more), all former subsistence farmers, were chosen and in 2016 made the move from the city.  

Julia says she could employ them permanently, she has so much work, but has to share them with other farms who want them to pick, plant, fence, cut regrowth, weed or load hay. They are paid award rates and, because they have Australian residency, farmers have no paperwork headaches. 
 
MIGRANTS AND REFUGEES REVIVING REGIONAL COMMUNITIES 

Julia is delighted, not only because of the new workforce but because of the contribution the Africans have made to the community. The primary school remains in business and the parents get involved with everything from the P&C to the church. Their English, which had faltered in the city where they had struggled to be part of the local fabric, is now fluent. They’re also working on growing garlic in their own market gardens which is helping to boost local economic growth. 

*READ more about the resilience of rural communities and how they’re driving economic growth: “Coleambally community is strong” and “The sky’s the limit”.  


Renatha Ntihabose, originally from Burundi, is one of 29 African migrants who moved from the city to Mingoola in the Northern Tablelands, starting a new life for themselves and reinvigorating a community.

“They have genuine love and empathy for the land. They’re a real asset,” says Julia. “There was some upskilling required, but TAFE has been wonderful and has run brush cutter and chainsaw courses.

*READ more about popular short courses in agriculture, such as beekeeping.

“You know, we had a few locals who weren’t very sure if the Africans would fit in and at a local meeting they warned, ‘We’re very remote here, we have to drive 70km to shops or hospitals.’ This lovely gentleman from the Congo said, ‘Excuse me, we’re African, we know about remote.’ To them, 70km was nothing, except they’d have walked it, they didn’t have cars.”


Renatha picks the garlic crop in Mingoola. The African refugees have Australian residency, so there are no paperwork problems when it comes to employing them.

THE NEED TO KNOWS OF HIRING MIGRANT WORKERS

NSW Farmers’ workplace relations manager Gracia Kusuma outlines the need-to-knows when employing foreign workers.

Seasonal Worker Programme

Open to nine participating Pacific Island countries plus Timor-Leste, the program allows foreign workers to make money to take back to their home countries as well as providing labour for agriculture. They need to be guaranteed at least an average of 30 hours work per week and can stay between six and nine months depending on country of origin. The farmer can directly employ seasonal workers, in which case they have to provide upfront costs such as plane tickets and accommodation. Any costs beyond $500 can later be deducted from the worker’s wage. Alternatively, farmers can hire seasonal workers through a labour hire company, which is then deemed the approved employer. This means risk is split, so if weather wipes out a crop, for example, the hire company can take the workers elsewhere.

Temporary Skills Shortage visa

This was previously the 457 visa but was stopped because the government wanted to limit the ability to sponsor foreign workers with a pathway to permanent residency – a frustration for regional areas which want people to settle permanently. It includes short-term visas for two years and medium-term visas for up to four years for more critical skills shortages.  

Labour Agreement

Pork and dairy are among a number of industries that have negotiated with the Department of Home Affairs to produce a template labour agreement to sponsor foreign workers in roles not accommodated by current visa options.

Working Holiday visa

The obvious example is backpackers who do harvesting work. Since the introduction of the working holiday-maker tax two years ago, backpackers pay 15% from the first dollar they earn. Farmers who employ them need to register online with the Australian Tax Office. This also allows the government to track the employers who are hiring foreign workers. Employers who don’t register have to tax working holiday-makers at a rate that starts at 30%.

Visa Entitlement Verification Online (VEVO)

Farmers employing any foreign worker need to sight their visa and use the VEVO online tool to check their right to work.

ANZSCO CODE

The Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations (ANZSCO) is the skills-based system utilised by the visa system to determine eligibility. All occupations are ranked 1 to 5, 1 being the most skilled (farmer) and 5 being the least skilled. Only those with skill level 3 or above are eligible for a skilled visa. Many believe ANZSCO is outdated. It doesn’t capture farm supervisor roles, and although an agricultural plant operator requires a high degree of skill, the role is classified as skill level 4 so doesn’t qualify for a skilled visa.

Cultural issues

Foreign workers come from all over the world and being respectful and aware of cultural differences can help avoid misunderstandings. For instance, workers from developing countries may have different standards of work health and safety, so it’s important to be clear when running through requirements. Workers from cultures where there is a huge gap between boss and worker may nod or say they understand, when actually they don’t – they just want to avoid creating an issue.

*FIND more information on the rules and regulations of wages across various agricultural commodities. 


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