24 July 2006

Australian farmers need more migrants

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The Australian is reporting that one of Australia's largest vegetable growers is stepping up its push for unskilled migration, claiming the federal Government fails to understand how the difficulties of attracting and retaining staff is hurting business.

The Sumich group, based in Western Australia - where unemployment is at a record low of 3.5 per cent - claims it already relies almost entirely on foreign workers, but they are backpackers or students who move on every few months.

The company wants to bring teams of foreign workers to Australia for 12 months at a time.

Chief executive Nick Tana described the state's labour shortage as chronic. He said the company employed 80 people but wanted to employ 160.

The Immigration Department is reviewing the system of classifying occupations covered by the skilled migration program and is under pressure from employer groups to relax the scheme.

But Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone rejects Sumich's calls to allow unskilled workers into the country.

"There are no plans to attract unskilled labour. This Government's migration program has had a longstanding focus on attracting skilled workers needed to sustain Australia's economic growth," she said.

"It is worth noting that Australia's unskilled unemployment rate is considerably higher than the skilled unemployment rate."

Despite the Howard Government's position, Sumich - which harvests and packs 52 weeks a year - is continuing to lobby state and federal politicians.

"People either can't, due to visa restrictions, or don't wish to remain at our site for any extended period of time," the company said in a letter to Liberal MP Judi Moylan.

"What we would like to do is bring in unskilled labour on a 12-month temporary visa."

Sumich assistant farm manager Brock Shields said Australian workers often lasted no more than a month. "And that includes about five sick days," he said.

The Agribusiness Association of Australia advocates special dispensation for its grower members to bring teams of itinerant overseas workers to Australia at harvest time.

National Harvest Labour Information Service manager Max Polworth said itinerant semi-skilled workers were becoming harder to find as many took up full-time roles as the industry expanded, or were attracted to other seemingly better-paid positions, particularly in the mining industry.

The Howard Government's new Australian Jobs report acknowledges that "Australia's labour force is not growing fast enough to meet employer demand, and with the unemployment rate low, many employers are experiencing labour shortages".

But the report points to an increase in the labour market participation of all Australians, including parents and people with disabilities, as a key measure to address this.

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