Backpacker inquiry recommends Government allow people on JobSeeker coronavirus payment to work on farms
Australians on JobSeeker would still be able to receive the unemployment benefit while also earning money harvesting crops and working on farms, under a bold recommendation by a Government-dominated parliamentary inquiry.
An interim report by the inquiry into the Working Holiday Maker (WHM) Program has also recommended that HECS and HELP fees for university courses be discounted for students who work in regional areas and that a one-off government payment be established to cover travel and accommodation costs for workers that move to regional and remote areas.
The inquiry, by the joint Migration Standing Committee, is chaired by Liberal MP Julian Leeser and was created after Australia closed its borders to international travellers because of the coronavirus pandemic in March.
Since then, the number of people in Australian on the WHM visa has fallen from about 140,000 to 73,500 earlier this month, prompting fears of a shortage of workers in the agriculture sector, which is reliant on backpackers.
“Given the importance of the agricultural and horticultural sector not only to our economy but to domestic and international food supply, we want the evidence we have heard and our deliberations to help inform the Parliament and the Government’s response to this crisis,” Mr Leeser wrote in the report.
The inquiry recommended that for the next year “workers stay on JobSeeker payments while undertaking low-paid agricultural and horticultural work”, but did not specify how much money Centrelink recipients could earn, or the tasks they could be employed to do.
Currently, people receiving the unemployment benefit are docked portions of their payment on a sliding scale if they earn over a certain amount.
JobSeeker a disincentive to work on farms, report hears
In June, the Government increased the unemployment benefit to $1,100 per fortnight, adding the coronavirus supplement to the payment and renaming it from Newstart to JobSeeker.
The inquiry heard that move had been a disincentive for some people to work on farms.
“When JobSeeker payments were raised, many growers reported they had workers collect their final pay cheques and leave because they rather go home and receive the JobSeeker payment than work on a farm,” an AusVeg spokesperson told the inquiry.
“To put it in perspective, after tax there’s only about $250 per fortnight difference in take-home pay for a level one on the horticulture award to that of the JobSeeker payment …, for many that’s a disincentive to work.”
The report also noted evidence from farm groups that the former Seasonal Worker Incentives Trial, which had attempted to encourage unemployed people on benefits to work on farms, had largely failed, with a take-up rate of 5 per cent after two years.
National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) spokesman Ben Rogers told the inquiry the program allowed people who were on welfare benefits to earn up to $5,000 while working on a farm without affecting those payments, and was “a financial inducement to work on farms”.
Mr Rogers also told the inquiry that, based on Australian Bureau of Statistics data, entry-level positions on farms could earn up to $1,000 per week.
More recently, NFF president Fiona Simson said seasonal workers could earn as much as $3,000 per week harvesting crops.
Plan to get students working on farms
The interim report has recommended Government “urgently develop a ‘Have A Gap Year At Home Campaign'” to attract young Australians to work on farms.
As part of the recommendation, the committee suggested the Government discount HECS and HELP fees, but it did not specify to what extent, or what specific jobs would be considered relevant.
The idea of a domestic ‘gap year’ was also recently spruiked by Agriculture Minister David Littleproud.
“We’re going to see a lot of Year 12 students finish in a couple of months and they’re not going to have the opportunity to go backpack around the world, there may be an opportunity to backpack around the country and make a quid while they’re doing it,” he said.
“Also there’s university students who’ll finish in a couple of months, the opportunity for then them to go and work in agriculture and make a quid over the summer holidays and then go back with some dollars in their pocket and have a better time when they go back to uni.”
On Tuesday Mr Littleproud said the Government was considering a number of programs to encourage Australians to work on farms.
It is an idea backed by the NT Farmers which recommended a deal to reduce HECS for students willing to harvest crops.
Assistance to help people move
One of the other recommendations from the inquiry was a one-off Government payment to help workers meet travel and accommodation costs “after a certain period of time working in regional, rural, remote areas”.
This follows a proposal by industry group the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance that a $1,200 relocation support payment for workers, and a $1,200 induction support payment for businesses, be paid retrospectively after three months of work is completed.
The alliance, made up of industry heavyweights including Costa and Driscolls, told the inquiry that backpackers contribute $13 billion a year to Australia’s GDP and that without adequate access to workers, the cost of fresh produce in Australia could jump by 60 per cent.
The inquiry also heard from an alliance of unions condemning the backpacker program for creating “systemic and widespread exploitation”.
The Retail Supply Chain Alliance used the inquiry to call for an end to the WHM program and for Australians to fill the farm jobs, as domestic unemployment surges.
Responding to the interim report on Tuesday afternoon, Social Services Minister Anne Ruston said the Government had already lifted the threshold on how much Australians on JobSeeker could earn before it affected their welfare payments.
“From 25 September, people receiving JobSeeker can earn $300 per fortnight — about 15 hours at minimum wage — before their payment is affected, and up to $1,257 per fortnight before they lose access to part payments,” Senator Ruston said.
The unemployment rate is at its highest level in more than two decades.