THE Federal Government is making temporary changes to visa arrangements to help farmers access the workforce they need to secure Australia’s food and produce supply during the COVID-19 upheaval.
The changes allow those within the Pacific Labour Scheme, Seasonal Worker Program and working holiday makers to continue to work in agriculture and food processing until the coronavirus crisis has passed.
The announcement by Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, will allow Seasonal Worker Programme and Pacific Labour Scheme workers to extend their stay for 12 months to work for approved employers.
Working Holiday Makers will be exempt from the six-month limit with one employer and be eligible for a further visa to continue to work in agriculture and food processing until the coronavirus crisis has passed.
- Seasonal Worker Programme and Pacific Labour Scheme workers can extend their stay for up to 12 months to work for approved employers (ensuring pastoral care and accommodation needs of workers are met to minimise health risks to visa holders and the community).
- Approved employers under the Seasonal Worker Programme and Pacific Labour Scheme will need to continue engaging with the Department of Education, Skills and Employment on labour market testing to ensure recruitment of Australians first.
- Working Holiday Makers (WHMs) who work in agriculture or food processing will be exempt from the six month work limitation with the one employer and eligible for a further visa to keep working in these critical sectors if their current visa is due to expire in the next six months.
- Conditions will be placed upon visa holders to self-isolate for 14 days before taking up employment in a different region (including termination of visas where there is non-compliance).
- To support implementation of self-isolation arrangements for visa holders and avoid spread of COVID-19 the government is working with states and territories on enforcement and sanction mechanisms.
- Employers will need to commit to providing safe accommodation for agricultural workers that complies with social distancing requirements.
- Arrangement will also need to be in place for a declaration between employers and employees that all protocols necessary to ensure human health and accommodation requirements have been met.
The National Farmers’ Federation said the decision to extend the visas of foreign workers already working in Australia gave certainty to farmers when planning for upcoming plantings and harvest.
“Importantly, it will permit a continuity of business in the production of fresh produce, that is so important to the health and wellbeing of Australians, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” NFF president Fiona Simson said.
“Farmers would always prefer to employ local workers and at this time, when some many are now without a job, we encourage Australians to consider farm work where their circumstances permit.
(Australians can register their in interest in farm work at https://jobsearch.gov.au/harvest)
“However, for many reasons farm work doesn’t attract adequate interest from Australians.
“This is perhaps even more so now during times when travel between states and within some states, is restricted and when people are especially wanting to stay close to their families.
“The farm sector relies on a combination of local and foreign workers to get fruit and vegetables picked and packed and ready for Australians to enjoy. Without international workers many farmers would be forced to leave produce to simply rot and die.”
Ms Simson said Australian farmers took very seriously their role in keeping their families, workers and communities safe from the spread of COVID-19.
“We support the Government’s implementation of the requirements for visa holders to self-isolate for 14 days and register at www.australia.gov.au before taking up employment in a different region. We also support the tough sanctions if the requirements are not followed,” she said.
“For peace of mind for both worker and employer, farmers must prepare a declaration which both parties need to agree that all necessary protocols have been put in place to ensure human health.”
To assist workers with managing the risk of COVID-19 spread the NFF has developed a COVID-19 Workplace Guide, which has been sent for review by the Chief Medical Officer.
The Guide outlines the considerations for farm business operators when welcoming new workers, addressing accommodation, quarantine and financial support.
It is vital that farm workers have accommodation that enables them to follow social distancing requirements.
It also contains essential information about the tightened social and hygiene practices required on farm and in staff living quarters. This includes how to respond should a worker either be suspected of having the virus or is in fact tested positive.
There is also a section on industrial relations detailing farmers rights and liabilities as employers.
See the COVID-19 Workforce Guide at https://farmhub.org.au/covid-19-nff-workplace-guide/
Sources: Federal Government, NFF
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