The food industry is still digesting the surprise news of the scrapped 457 visa program and its replacement with a Temporary Skill Shortage visa system.
The changes, which take effect immediately, will see the new two-stream visa work program tighten up on required work experience, and applicants will also have to meet English language requirements and undergo a criminal check.
Problems with the 457 program have included use of the visas to hire overseas workers in place of Australian workers in a bid to pay less in wages.
A number of food companies, including Thomas Foods International, Hazeldene's and Teys were involved in a Senate inquiry into the treatment of workers on 457 visas in 2015, and Baiada was found by the Fair Work Ombudsman to have exploited and underpaid its foreign workers.
The new scheme will include a short term visa which will be issued for two years and a medium term which will be issued for up to four years. Both will include a requirement for two years of work experience, a market salary rate assessment and a new non-discriminatory workforce test.
Controversially, the number of eligible occupations will be cut by 216, with 268 occupations available for the two year visa and 167 for the four year visa, however critics say the new system won't address skills shortages, and could reduce skilled migration.
One of the problems, critics say, is that the new scheme does not address the problems of employer-conducted labour market testing, instead of independent testing, to show advertised jobs can't be filled with Australian labour.
The Australian vegetable industry says it is vital that regional Australia receives appropriate consideration under the replacement scheme.
AUSVEG, the horticultural body representing Australia’s vegetable and potato growers, says in remote towns like Carnarvon in north-west Western Australia, growers rely on overseas workers to fill jobs.
“If Australia’s skilled migration system is going to be changed, then we need to recognise the critical role that skilled foreign workers play in regional industries, including the vegetable and broader horticulture industries,” said AUSVEG CEO James Whiteside.
“Modifying our skilled migration program without due consideration of rural industries runs the risk of having massive flow-on impacts to the productivity and profitability of these industries.”
Whiteside said the “unfortunate saga of the backpacker tax last year” stemmed from inadequate industry consultation.
“We’re eager to sit down with the government and make sure that affected industries are kept front-of-mind during the process of any reforms to Australia’s worker migration system.
“If Australia’s regional industries are to be internationally competitive in an increasingly globalised market, it’s vital that they continue to have reliable access to skilled and unskilled labour throughout the year to cater for the peaks and troughs in seasonal workforce demand.”
Workers currently in Australia under the 457 scheme can continue on their current visa. The new system is expected to be fully implemented by 2018.