In a significant shift, the Federal government has finally acknowledged the pivotal role played by regional based employers in the country’s growth. Recognising the vital contribution of the regional sector and the potential of migration to revitalise communities, the government has prioritised visa processing for regional areas within the Department.
Released in December 2023, the Migration Strategy underscores the emerging economic and social opportunities in regional Australia. Despite these prospects, attracting people to live in regional areas remains a challenge with only 34% of the population residing outside major cities. The imbalance is particularly pronounced, with 49% concentrated in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane.
The agriculture industry, specifically the horticulture sector, exemplifies the predicament faced by regional employers. Producing 93% of the nation’s consumed food and contributing $48.7 billion to the GDP, the industry struggles with labour shortages. Historically relying on Working Holiday Makers (WHM), employers face issues such as visa exploitation, underpayment, sexual harassment and workplace safety concerns.
The WHM program allows individuals from partner countries to visit Australia for a 12 month working holiday, with the possibility of extension based on specified work requirements. Despite being instrumental in meeting labour needs the program has inherent problems. Visa exploitation and the transient nature of work in industries like fruit picking hinder investment in skills and training, depriving workers of career opportunities.
Acknowledging both the benefits and challenges of the WHM program, the government plans to conduct a comprehensive consultation and research process. Focused on the 88 day, 179 day, and specified work requirements, the objective is to refine the program, ensuring it continues to support essential skills in regional Australia while addressing worker exploitation.
For regional employers, as there have been no announced changes to the existing situation they can continue employing overseas workers with the expectation of impending improvements. In the interim, those wishing to sponsor overseas workers under the Temporary Skill Shortage Visa (subclass 482), or the Employer Nominated Visa (subclass 186) can do so, receiving priority processing as the government works towards a more robust and effective migration system.
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