Backpackers return to discover new opportunities

By Hari Yellina
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The past week has seen a couple of significant achievements in terms of improving labour availability across the economy, not just in horticulture. First, Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated that visa fees for prospective overseas students and working holiday makers will be waived for those arriving in the coming weeks. This was shortly followed, not coincidentally, by confirmation that the Queensland government would follow other jurisdictions in abolishing the quarantine requirement for overseas arrivals by the end of the week, regardless of whether we met the 90% vaccination objective.

Both are significant indications that should encourage potential visitors to make preparations to visit Australia sooner rather than later. However, things have changed dramatically since the inception of COVID-19, and the connection between the Australian horticulture industry and backpackers will never be the same. Working holidaymakers in northern, remote, and very distant areas would be able to credit work outside of agriculture, such as tourism and hospitality, toward their visa renewals, according to Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s announcement in June 2021.

The Australian government then struck a Free Trade Agreement with the United Kingdom in December, removing the requirement for UK backpackers to do any work in order to stay in the nation longer. Perhaps most importantly, backpackers will meet a lot more Pacific Island colleagues on the farm than they have in the past. Many producers have severed their reliance on backpackers out of necessity and discovered a much more productive, reliable, albeit more expensive, supply of labour in the Pacific. This increased demand for workers from the Pacific is joyfully met by a huge number of people who are eager to take advantage of the opportunity. In August, the Prime Minister told a receptive Pacific Islands Forum that we would treble our intake under these programmes.

The new Australian Agriculture Visa is the last major piece of our labour supply puzzle to be put in place. The visa is still in the works, but whatever form it takes, it will only add to our array of seasonal labour supply alternatives by increasing diversity, reliability, and productivity. None of this, however, implies that returning backpackers will have difficulty finding work on a farm once they get in Oz. Robots will continue to have a position in our industry until we are all replaced by them. We are looking forward to it.


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