RURAL leaders have appealed to the federal government for a long-stay visa for foreign farm workers to ease the shortage of farm labour.
As the booming agricultural sector prepares to double production to become a food bowl for Asia, National Farmers Federation president Jock Laurie yesterday called on the Gillard government to make the contentious 457 skilled entry visa, used by the mining industry to bring in longer-stay temporary workers from Asia, more suited to farm work.
The agricultural sector had recovered after shrinking during the decade-long drought but had lost many of its young people to the cities and skilled workers to better-paid mining jobs, he said.
He said the desperate shortage of workers was coming to an unprecedented head during the grains harvest, now under way across eastern Australia, making the need for action urgent.
In rural centres such as the rich cotton and wheat bowl of Moree in northern NSW, more than one-third of the labour on farms and in contract harvesting teams this year is being provided by young foreign workers from Ireland, France, Scotland, Denmark and Germany.
Most are in Australia on working holiday or 417 "backpacker" visas, which restrict their farm work to six months on any one rural property and to two consecutive years before their return to Australia is blocked.
German solar panel installer Hannes Rinkl, 26, is employed on the 18,000ha Boonaldoon station, west of Moree, and would love to return for six months' work every year. But this is his second year harvesting grain and irrigating cotton farms in rural Australia on a working holiday visa and, despite his own wishes and a farm manager keen to keep him longer, the current visa restrictions will force him to leave early next year.
"I can't get a permanent visa because tractor driving doesn't count (as a priority skill)," Mr Rinkl said this week.
The harvest contractor working alongside Mr Rinkl, driving a tank-like giant green header on 16-hour shifts, is also a new foreign arrival: Craig Nicol, 20, is a farmhand from the Scottish Highlands well-used to farm machinery.
Employed by a cropping contractor from western Victoria, Nicol plans to work from October to February harvesting wheat, barley, chickpea and canola crops stretching south from Queensland to Victoria. It means all-night shifts, seven days a week, but Mr Nicol is earning $30 an hour and saving $15,000 in four months.
"It's not a holiday; it's really all about work," Mr Nicol said.
"But I get to see the world.
"I'm doing something I like and there is a lot more money in it here than at home.
"I'm not sure yet if I would like to come back again next year.
"Leaving home has been hard and the phenomenal scale of things here has been a culture shock, but I'd like to know I had the option (because) it's a pretty big thrill to be driving a header with a 45-foot front."
The NFF wants the Gillard government to expand the scope of the 457 temporary longer-entry visas to include farm workers such as Mr Rinkl and Mr Nicol who have been farm-trained to drive expensive and sophisticated harvest machinery but lack formal technical qualifications currently required for a 457 visa.
This would allow young workers, often with trade or farm backgrounds from stressed countries such as Scotland, Ireland and France who are streaming into isolated rural centres for plentiful farm jobs, to convert from a 417 visa to a longer-stay 457 visa if the farm employer backed their application.
Mr Laurie fears the unions are putting intense pressure on the government not to extend the scope of 457 visas to less-skilled foreign workers while national unemployment hovers above 5 per cent. Yesterday's official labour force survey showed the jobless rate holding steady at 5.4 per cent for the second consecutive month.
"The unions often say they don't want unskilled workers coming here from other countries," Mr Laurie said. "But a lot of Australians don't want to move into remote areas like Moree, while we know many of these young people from overseas have got experience in farming, the basic skills to drive this expensive machinery, and can step straight into these jobs - and most of all, want to work here."
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the government's first priority was always to ensure jobs for Australian workers, while recognising some sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, continued to face labour market pressures.
He said that while the 457 visa program was an uncapped, demand-driven program designed to address genuine labour shortages where no appropriately skilled Australians were available, it was available only to skilled farm occupations backed by recognised qualifications.
"Of course we recognise that skill shortages pose major challenges to regional Australian businesses, with significant implications for the viability of towns and local economies, and the government is committed to supporting regional communities to address these issues," he said.
"It remains open to farmers to use the Labour Agreements program, which facilitates the temporary entry of skilled and semi-skilled workers where there are domestic shortages and the 457 program does not suit."
Farmers such as Maryan Hunter of Garah, in northern NSW, who have tried to keep backpackers longer by applying to convert a 417 visa to a longer-stay 457 visa, have already been knocked back by the Immigration Department.
She says a labour agreement negotiated through a union, as suggested by Mr Bowen, is totally unsuited and irrelevant to a family farm.
Ms Hunter said yesterday the main reasons for her farm-sponsored application being rejected were red tape requiring set employer training budgets to be dedicated to unsuited TAFE training courses and the farm worker's lack of relevant qualifications that were included on the government's eligible list.
"That's why we have got together in this Moree Plains region and formed a working party to lobby government," Mrs Hunter said. "We just hope the government and the Immigration Department listen because something has to change quickly if we are going to find and keep enough good workers.
"This is not about cheap labour but about continuity of labour; it is these backpackers who we have trained up who are making our life out on our big farms around Moree so much better. They want to work and are willing, and their wages often return to the town."
Another option being explored is for farm regions to apply for special Regional Migration Agreements.
Read more on The Australian.