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SEPWA pioneers visa overhaul

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

In what is set to be an Australian first, the South East Premium Wheat Growers Association (SEPWA) is working with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to streamline visa applications for international agricultural workers.

In a climate where growers are becoming hamstrung by the difficulties in sourcing farm labour, SEPWA executive officer Gemma Walker said the association was working on a template form to make it easier for growers in the Esperance port zone to put employees on labour agreements.

These agreements currently require pages of forms, swaths of information and can take up to six months. But SEPWA is hoping to speed up the process by pre-filling as much of the information as possible.

“Instead of farmers maybe having to fill in 25 pages, they may only need to fill in 12 with their own business details,” Ms Walker said.

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Department of Immigration regional outreach officer Steve Lanyi said it was the first time this had been done for the agricultural industry.

He said since plant operators for agriculture were taken off the list of occupations under the 457 visa, growers could only employ permanent international workers as plant operators through a labour agreement or the regionally-sponsored migration scheme. And that meant the process for farmers could be complicated.

SEPWA president Lyndon Mickel said the farm group was hoping to reduce some of the complexity for growers, but the labour issue wasn’t going away.

Cascade grower Wayne Walter employs at least four international workers over harvest and said the entire process was too complicated.

“The working holiday visa is fine, but anything else is quite involved and accessing the right people is an issue as well if you don’t have contacts,” he said.

“You don’t want to go through that process and get the wrong person.”

Next door, cropper Simeon Roberts said part of the problem was international seasonal workers often came into Australia on a working holiday visa.

But for most countries, an individual is only allowed two working holiday visas and must be under a certain age.

“There are examples of people who have had a guy for two harvests and two seedings and they want to get him back, but he’s past the age of getting a working holiday visa,” Simeon said.

He said his family operation would generally employ nine or 10 workers annually in seasonal and permanent positions and most would be international workers.

However, he said training and sourcing those workers was often a laborious and expensive process.

“If you drive down our road, nearly everyone has got a road train or two,” Simeon said.

“(But for) someone who doesn’t have a truck licence to getting a multi-combination licence, I think it’s nearly a three year process.

“Once you invest in that in a staff member, you really need them to hang around to get the benefit and for them to be trained properly.”

Ms Walker said SEPWA also intended to look at options for seasonal labour other than the current working holiday arrangement.

SEPWA hopes to have the labour agreement template in place by the end of the year.

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