Backpacker Aki Funada, 31 of Hiroshima in Japan, picking tomatoes at Wellington Point. Picture: Liam Kidston
Backpacker Aki Funada, 31 of Hiroshima in Japan, picking tomatoes at Wellington Point. Picture: Liam Kidston

Visa changes to bring flood of backpackers

THOUSANDS more backpackers are expected to arrive in Australia to pick fruit and tend animals under a Federal Government plan to fill critical worker shortages on farms.

Pacific Islanders doing seasonal work will also be allowed to stay up to three months longer as the Government tries to placate angry farmers who warn crops will rot because they cannot find staff.

Annual working holiday visa caps will be lifted, the age limit raised to 35 for some countries, and backpackers will be able to triple the length of their stay in Australia if they agree to an extra six months' agricultural work.

In a series of changes to visa rules, backpackers will no longer need to leave jobs every six months and also will be permitted to stay with the same employer for up to a year.

A current rule forcing some backpackers to work in northern Australia to extend their visas will be dumped in favour of guidelines allowing them to work in a wider range of regions anywhere in the country.

The Government has been under growing pressure to help farmers plug holes in their workforce after the Nationals failed to deliver a promised agriculture visa, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison's plan to force dole recipients to pick fruit was dismissed by the industry.

Backpackers spent $920 million in regional areas last year but the number of those willing to do farm work to get a second year in Australia has fallen by almost 30 per cent since 2013.

The northern Australia requirement allows backpackers to work in pubs in tourism hot spots such as Cairns and Darwin. The changes will allow them to work on farms in every state.

Nationals MP Keith Pitt had urged the government to increase the number of backpackers and dump the northern Australia rule because it was crippling farms in his Bundaberg region.

As part of the farm labourer push, Pacific Islanders will be able to work for nine months rather than the current six month limit. Employer expenses will be cut, with seasonal workers forced to pay back full travel costs except $300, rather than the current $500 subsidy and labour market testing doubled to six months.

It is believed Mr Morrison has not ruled out finally agreeing to another agriculture visa if the changes do not fill the gaps on farms.

The Prime Minister, who will announce the changes during a visit to a farm in southeast Queensland today, said the aim was to deliver immediate help to farmers.

"Australians filling Australian jobs is my No.1 priority but when this isn't possible we need to ensure our farmers aren't left high and dry with rotting crops, especially in the strawberry industry," Mr Morrison said.

"We want more money in the back pockets of our farmers."

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, who has been pushing for an agriculture visa, said the changes were a pragmatic solution to address the problem of filling workforce shortages.

Adrian Lynch, who uses both backpackers and Pacific island workers at his Wellington Point farm, said they supplemented semi-permanent staff during the busy winter period.

"It works for both of us," he said.