National Farmers’ Federation President, Fiona Simson said more must be done to protect the rights and safety of backpackers in Australian workplaces, but a ban on working holiday makers was not the solution.
“Backpackers and other seasonal workers are a vital part of Australia’s farm workforce and intrinsic to the fabric and vibrancy of regional Australia.
“Like many businesses, every year farmers depend on a mixture of local and foreign labour, including backpackers, to pick and pack their crop. Up to 80% of the horticulture sector’s workforce is migrant labour.
“The NFF and our members, have always been ‘eyes wide open’ to the deplorable, and sometimes, illegal actions by some rogue operators, who choose to actively exploit and mistreat working holiday makers,” Ms Simson said.
“As an industry we have zero tolerance for these actions and are committed to calling out those found to be doing the wrong thing. Wrongdoers must feel the full force of the law.”
However, Ms Simson said a stunt today by three union heavy weights calling for the scrapping of the backpacker visa was ill-conceived and not productive.
“The notion of simply shutting the door on backpackers is a shameful overreach that does absolutely nothing to improve the experience of working holiday makers in our country.
“The action of the Australian Workers Union, Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) and the Transport Workers Union, must be called out for what it is: a shallow attempt to grab the headlines in what are unprecedentedly challenging times for our nation.
“Farmers would always prefer to employ Australians, but the facts this gang of unions choose to ignore are that farmers simply cannot source the local workers they need and therefore rely on international workers to help put food on the shelves for all Australians.
“COVID-19 travel restrictions mean, right now, farmers across the country are facing dire workforce shortages and in some cases entire crops are in jeopardy, because growers may not be able to get the workers they need to harvest.”
Ms Simson said as an industry dependent on the backpacker population, the farm sector had set a challenge to stamp out worker exploitation.
“A large part of this is better communicating with farmers and workers about their rights and responsibilities. The NFF and its Horticulture Council supports the Fair Farms initiative developed by GrowCom to assist with this.”
Fair Farms supports all members of the Australian horticulture supply chain with the tools, information and training they need to be a compliant and ethical employer.
In addition, participants in the program can demonstrate their compliance to their customers, workers and consumers through certification.
The NFF also supports the supermarkets’ own Ethical Supply Chain Sourcing arrangements which helps stamp out exploitation and will help level the playing field in a highly competitive horticulture Industry.
The NFF continues to call on the Government to introduce a dedicated Agriculture Visa, to address the farm sector’s workforce needs and to safeguard foreign workers.
“The first steps in protecting overseas workers is ensuring that they have entered Australia via legal and legitimate means; are working in accordance with visa conditions, and that their presence in the Australian workforce is transparent, all of which an Ag Visa would help enable,” Ms Simson said.
“An important feature of an Ag Visa would be that only growers who could demonstrate their compliance with the law would be able to access the program.
“It would also have safeguards to ensure workers know their rights, know who to turn to, and are not bullied into thinking that they have to put up with mistreatment.”
Ms Simson said Australian farmers would always prefer to employ locals, however for many reasons the seasonal, temporary nature of the work on offer does not suit many Australian job seekers.
“For the foreseeable future agriculture will depend on a combined local and foreign workforce.
“We are committed to do all we can to make the experience a good one for all workers on Australian farms.
“Short-sighted, juvenile, headline grabbing stunts like what we’ve seen today from the these three unions, do nothing to advance this goal,” Ms Simson said.
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