The Morrison government will loosen restrictions on two schemes that bring temporary farm workers into Australia, after months of pressure from the farming lobby and warnings fruit would rot on trees unless a labour solution was found.
The move comes as Prime Minister Scott Morrison begins a tour of Queensland this week.
While the Farmer’s Federation and the Nationals had been calling for a new agricultural visa, the government will instead loosen restrictions on two existing visas: the working backpacker visa and the Pacific islander scheme.
“Australians filling Australian jobs is my number one priority, but when this isn’t possible we need to ensure our farmers aren’t left high and dry with rotting crops, especially in the strawberry industry,” Mr Morrison told News Corp on Monday.
The total number of working backpackers allowed into Australia each year will rise, the government confirmed. It will be “lifting annual caps” by an unspecified number for the 462 visa,
Backpackers will also be able to stay with the one employer for up to a year, rather than six months. The government will also make it easier for backpackers to renew their visas for a second year, and sometimes a third.
Researchers at the Development Policy Centre thinktank warned the expansion of the backpacker scheme would reduce demand for the much smaller Pacific seasonal worker scheme.
In November last year, the centre found there were just 250 Pacific workers in Australia for every 1,000 backpackers. By contrast, New Zealand had nearly 3,000 Pacific workers for every 1,000 backpackers.
The government is changing the Pacific worker scheme too.
The existing program allows a limited list of employers to bring in workers from Timor Leste, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
The workers are currently allowed to stay for up to six months – or nine months for those from Nauru, Kiribati and Tuvalu.
Under the changes, the cap will rise to nine months for all countries. Employers will only have to pay $300 towards each worker’s travel costs, instead of the current $500.
Deep Creek Organics is an asparagus farm located around one hour outside Melbourne, and one of the accredited businesses that can access Pacific workers.
Co-owner Donna Bombaci said her operation would not really benefit from the extension from six to nine months, given her Pacific workforce generally only came for a four-month harvest season.
But Ms Bombaci said she would welcome workers paying more of their own travel costs.
Her workers often earned more than $1000 per week, she said, and could afford to pay back more of their flights.
The seasonal work scheme has not been without controversy, with SBS News revealing more than a dozen Pacific islanders have died on Australian farms over the past six years.
The prime minister is expected to announce the changes on a Queensland farm on Monday.