Visa rules a hurdle for China

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian
Heilongjiang Feng Agricultural vice-president Gao Zhigang.
Camera IconHeilongjiang Feng Agricultural vice-president Gao Zhigang. Credit: Nic Ellis/The West Australian

A Chinese conglomerate which controls a big slice of WA farmland wants visa restrictions lifted to make it easier to run its operations using foreign labour.

Heilongjiang Feng Agricultural vice-president Gao Zhigang said yesterday difficulties in getting working visa approvals was the "most annoying" aspect of doing business in Australia.

Mr Gao said HFA wanted visas for farm managers, livestock workers, mechanics, technicians and trade experts to run its farms and growing operations in WA.

HFA, controlled by the State-owned Beidahuang Group, has become the biggest cropping enterprise in Australia. It now owns or leases about 85,000ha in the Wheatbelt after starting from scratch in 2011 and harvesting its first crops late last year.

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Mr Gao flagged major investment in livestock would follow the leap into the grain industry by stressing the need for visas for animal husbandry workers.

Speaking through at interpreter at the WA-China Agribusiness Co-operation Conference in Perth, Mr Gao backed a fast-track approval system which linked the number of working visas issued to the size of the investment.

He said HFA had six management staff working in WA with four of them on 12-month visas.

"We will need people from the animal husbandry area to come and in future we will buy more machinery and we will need mechanics and we will need technicians," Mr Gao said.

Many farms and agribusinesses face labour shortages and rely on 457 visa holders and backpackers on 417 visas at peak times.

It is believed HFA has gone cold on plans to develop a terminal at Albany Port to export grain from its farms to China and is looking at alternatives. Mr Gao was non-committal when asked about the Albany project, which could proceed with the backing of another grains player.

The Department of Agriculture and Food WA-hosted conference promoting investment attracted about 160 delegates from Chinese businesses and government agencies.

They will split into groups for site visits over the next two days which will take in farms and major processing assets. The site visits will focus on investment opportunities in grain, sheep meat, fodder, cattle and dairy.

The cattle industry tour - which includes Harvey Beef, Alcoa's farms and the Livestock Shipping Services export depot - follows another step toward opening up live exports to China.

The WA Live Exporters' Association and two meat processors based in WA's sister state Zhejiang signed a memorandum of understanding on working toward animal health protocols.

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