As the summer fruit picking season draws near there’s little prospect for a timely introduction of a new class of unskilled worker visa to fill significant workforce shortfalls.
It is understood that the government is consulting with relevant ministers on a solution that won’t disrupt existing temporary visa schemes for unskilled workers.
Industry has received mixed messages on farm workforce reforms.
In late August Nationals MPs said a new visa was set to be introduced within weeks.
But the scheme was shelved in late September, after concerns were raised by Pacific Island nations that the seasonal worker programs would be disrupted.
Pacific Islander worker schemes make a substantial contribution to their local economies, earning a collective $150 million a year in wages from seasonal work.
Today, the Assistant Trade Minister told the ABC that a revised ag visa scheme could target skilled workers, such as diesel mechanics, while the Pacific Islander scheme remained in place.
“An ag-specific visa would work hand in hand with the Pacific Islander guest workforce,” Mr Coulton said.
He said the revised ag visa could be in place by the end of the year.
But the Prime Minister more circumspect when speaking to media in Sydney today.
“The Pacific Islander Scheme has the priority in our program… that's the assurance I give to all of the Pacific Island leader.
“But we also know there are limits to how much that scheme can meet the overall demand, and we need to get a much better handle on that level of demand,” Scott Morrison said.
“I'm not going to pre-empt the outcome of the process we're going through but where there are opportunities for the programs to be better matched to regional needs, we will look at addressing those.”
The responsible Minister, David Coleman, came to the Immigration portfolio in August. He said he’s working on a new plan and he would “be having more to say about (the ag visa) shortly”.
It remains to be seen if any headway can be made before harvest is in full swing.
The mango pick is underway in northern Australia, stone fruit harvesting in southern states starts in November and other fruit comes will be ready throughout summer.
Larger horticultural companies, with long-term harvest demands, tend to be best placed to participate in the Pacific Island worker schemes.
Smaller horticulture companies have smaller picking requirements and find it harder to attract Pacific Islander workers and to satisfy the worker scheme requirements.
Social and demographic challenges discourage Australian workers taking jobs in rural locations.
This means many farmers rely on migrant labour to fill the gap, but they have to turn to the visa system with significant shortcomings.
An ag visa would be aimed at reducing the cost and red tape in the application process and potentially allowing workers to move between smaller farms in a given period.