Farmers warn ‘unworkable’ changes to Pacific foreign worker scheme will trigger ‘mass exodus’

Headshot of Adam Poulsen
Adam PoulsenCountryman
Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke has come under fire from farm lobby groups after announcing new changes to Australia’s Pacific foreign worker scheme.
Camera IconWorkplace Relations Minister Tony Burke has come under fire from farm lobby groups after announcing new changes to Australia’s Pacific foreign worker scheme. Credit: TheWest

Farmers will have to pay foreign workers a minimum 30 hours a week under new changes to the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme, prompting industry leaders to warn of an impending “mass exodus” of producers.

The National Farmers’ Federation has all but threatened to boycott the scheme after the announcement this week of new guidelines set to be rolled out from July 1.

PALM scheme workers will be guaranteed pay parity with their domestic counterparts and a minimum weekly takehome pay of $200 under the changes.

WAFarmers president John Hassell.
Camera IconWAFarmers president John Hassell. Credit: Cally Dupe/Countryman

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While unions have labelled it “a win for workers”, WAFarmers president John Hassell said the changes would be “completely unworkable” given the seasonal ­nature of farm work.

“We’re doing 60, 70, 80 hours a week during seasonal times and cutting back at other times,” he said.

“A fixed 30-hour week will mean workers will be sitting around doing nothing (during those times).”

NFF Horticulture Council executive officer Richard Shannon said many growers would simply “walk away from the scheme”.

“We don’t want to damage Australia’s relationship with Pacific through a mass exodus of farms from the program, but at this point we’d have to encourage farmers to explore their options carefully,” he said.

“The return of backpackers to pre-COVID numbers has not gone unnoticed by employers. Growers are readying themselves to walk away in big numbers.”

NFF spokeswoman Rachel Chambers accused Labor of “outsourcing Australia’s Pacific diplomacy” to the Australian Council of Trade Unions, saying the changes appeared “to be a proxy for wider ideological industrial relations reforms”.

The PALM scheme allows approved businesses to hire workers from nine Pacific Islands nations and Timor Leste for up to nine months in seasonal jobs, or four years in unskilled, low-skilled and semi-skilled positions.

It was introduced by the Morrison Government in 2018 in a bid to plug chronic labour shortages in Australia’s $90 billion agriculture sector, and later expanded to include metropolitan meat, seafood, fruit and vegetable processors.

The Australian Fresh Produce Alliance slammed the changes, with chief executive Claire McClelland warning employers would be at risk of breaching the flat 30-hour a week requirement “anytime there is a few days of bad weather”.

AFPA chief executive Claire McClelland.
Camera IconAFPA chief executive Claire McClelland. Credit: LinkedIn

“Politicians in Canberra need to understand that there is variability in growing fresh produce; a few hours of heavy rain can make it impossible to access paddocks for several days,” she said.

“The only options will be for employers to reduce engagement in the program and look to alternative sources of labour, like backpackers, which is an unfortunate outcome for industry, and the Pacific.

“We want to support PALM workers in Australia, pay them well, and grow the program, but the industry needs Government to take a common sense approach to regulation to ensure we can continue participating in the program.”

The AFPA is calling for a compromise whereby workers would be offered a minimum of 120 hours over a four-week period, as opposed to 30 hours each and every week.

Ms McClelland also took aim at the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, saying its industry consultation was rushed out over just 10 days.

But Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke insisted there had been “extensive consultation” with industry representatives and employer groups.

Australian Workers’ Union national secretary Daniel Walton said the changes would “provide much-needed safeguards” and “help ensure the dignified treatment of farm workers”.

“Australia does not need to mistreat our guests from the Pacific in order to have thriving and profitable agriculture and horticulture sectors,” he said.

Nationals leader David Littleproud echoed concerns flagged by the AFPA, saying the changes would further push up the price of groceries as farmers sought to pass on costs.

“Common sense tells you near-impossible new rules and increased costs on our farmers created by Labor will result in increased costs on food for families,” he said.

“When supply goes down, prices go up, which is why farmers are currently planting less and Australians continue to pay more for food.”

As of March 31, there were 431 approved PALM scheme employers engaging more than 37,000 workers, 71 per cent of which were employed in the horticulture and agriculture sectors.

Queensland accounted for about 13,490 workers, followed by Victoria (7030), NSW (5870), Tasmania (4480), WA (3520), South Australia (2330), Northern Territory (1050) and the ACT (30).

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