Working holiday inquiry must make backpacker program more attractive

Working holiday inquiry must make backpacker program more attractive

Horticulture
ECONOMY: Working holidaymakers contribute about $3 billion a year to the Australian economy and support jobs in regional Australia.

ECONOMY: Working holidaymakers contribute about $3 billion a year to the Australian economy and support jobs in regional Australia.

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An inquiry into the Working Holiday Maker program will ensure it is working effectively to support tourism, health care and agriculture during the COVID-19 economic recovery.

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An inquiry into the Working Holiday Maker program will ensure it is working effectively to support tourism, health care and agriculture during the COVID-19 economic recovery.

The Joint Standing Committee on Migration launched the inquiry, stating that working holidaymakers contribute about $3 billion a year to the Australian economy and support jobs in regional Australia.

Working holidaymakers are a major contributor to the labour force in the agriculture, tourism, health care and aged care sectors.

There are about 50,000 fewer backpackers in Australia because of the coronavirus.

But once borders re-open, they will be key to filling some roles where Australian workers are usually not available, particularly in regional areas.

The committee will look at how backpackers can complement, rather than compete with those Australian workers laid off because of the pandemic.

READ MORE: Why a skilled worker shortage could push up the price of fruit

Matt Heyes, founder of Backpacker Job Board - a site that helps connect working holidaymakers and employers throughout Australia - welcomed the inquiry.

"Even putting the COVID-19 crisis aside, take-up numbers for the Working Holiday Program have been slowly reducing year-on-year," Mr Heyes said.

"The package is in need of review."

"As part of the review, the program needs to be contrasted with similar schemes in other countries. We must make sure that the Australian WHM program competes favourably against other countries.

"Australia is home to some of the most remarkable natural landscapes in the world.

"Working holidaymakers will want to come and be part of a cultural exchange here - but the program itself needs to match (and better) peoples' expectations.

"We hope the inquiry is not only thorough but is also able to promptly respond to the current crisis and make recommendations which can be expeditiously implemented to help a wider recovery effort.

"This is much-needed to help support the tourism sector and also those industries which rely so heavily on international backpackers."

Mr Heyes said he'd like the review to revise the backpacker tax and bring back the tax-free threshold.

"Increased regulation and simplification of the current second-year visa extension scheme is also required."

He would also like to see backpackers who have previously enjoyed a working holiday in Australia offered access to a second.

"This would be a separate scheme to the current second and third-year extensions," he said.

"An offer of an additional working holiday, to those who may have visited many years ago, would result in a much-needed boost to overall numbers."

The impact of COVID-19 was far and wide-reaching.

"One of the most difficult issues currently impacting employment is the closure of state borders," Mr Heyes said.

"Usually, backpackers are more than happy to travel interstate and relocate for the right job opportunity.

"Currently, backpackers are restricted by where they can travel for work.

"What's more, when following the harvest seasons around the country, backpackers currently have to quarantine on arrival for 14 days prior to commencing work on a farm."

Mr Heyes said the hospitality and agriculture industries have been hit hard by COVID-19 - two sectors of the Australian economy which rely on the backpacker workforce.

Crops won't wait for markets to recover or a replacement workforce to skill-up. - Matt Heyes, Backpacker Job Board founder

"It's encouraging that we are now seeing green shoots in the hospitality sector.

"Seek announced recently that they have seen a 138 per cent increase in hospitality job ads.

"We're are also seeing a very similar situation here on the Backpacker Job Board."

However, Mr Heyes said agriculture is a more complex situation.

"Crops won't wait for markets to recover or a replacement workforce to skill-up.

"The seasonal nature of agriculture has meant that there's been a strong demand for work in this area throughout.

"We've seen more competition for recruitment, with farmers spending more than usual on recruitment advertising," Mr Heyes said.

Warren, NSW, farmer Malcolm McKay knows all too well how reliant the agricultural industry is on holiday workers.

COVID-19 has made the already difficult task of attracting workers to regional areas even harder.

"We were lucky to find a local person to help with sowing but we are very concerned about finding holiday workers to assist with grain harvest later in the year," Mr McKay said.

"With good rain so far and crops looking extremely healthy, there is great potential for excellent yields."

The possibility of good yields means that securing an adequate number of experienced workers, with the required skills, is vital.

"We usually source seasonal workers from overseas for harvest - we are worried about finding workers due to COVID-19," Mr McKay said.

"Usually, there are plenty of backpackers looking to get their visa extended and this year we expect it hard to find workers.

"If yields are high, more workers are required.

"Trying to find workers with farm experience will be extremely difficult and we believe it will be almost impossible to find backpackers that know how to use the machinery and technology involved.

"Almost all farms in our area employ at least one to two backpackers for harvest.

"We are looking at employing three so far if we have good yields."

The story Working holiday inquiry must make backpacker program more attractive first appeared on Farm Online.

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