During this inquiry, issues relating to the particular conditions that apply to the two Working Holiday Maker (WHM) visa classes were raised, and changes to some of those conditions were suggested.
Some suggestions were made regarding temporary adjustments to deal with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and many of these were explored in the Interim Report. Some temporary changes were enacted while this Inquiry was taking place. Other suggestions were made about changes that are needed on a more permanent basis. This chapter makes note of the changes that have been implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic then makes recommendations on longer term reforms to WHM visas.
COVID-19 visa changes
In response to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Home Affairs (Home Affairs) made an adjustment to the visa conditions attached to both the 417 and 462 subclasses.
As noted in Chapter 2, specified work for both WHM visa subclasses was extended to include critical COVID-19 work in the healthcare and medical sectors anywhere in Australia, undertaken after 31 January 2020.
The Federal Government also established the COVID-19 Pandemic Event visa (subclass 408) to enable visa holders to remain in Australia for up to 12 months to continue their work in critical sectors including agriculture, food processing, health care, aged care, disability care and child care during the COVID-19 pandemic. The purpose of this was to enable visa holders contributing to critical sectors to continue to work in those sectors to assist Australia through the crisis.
From 14 November 2020, former WHMs who transitioned to a COVID-19 Pandemic event visa can count this work as specified work towards eligibility for a second- or third-year WHM visa. These new arrangements recognise the contribution of WHMs doing critical COVID-19 work in the healthcare and medical sectors and ensure they can still access subsequent WHM visa options.
The Federal Government has also announced that WHM visa holders who have been unable to come to Australia or who had to leave Australia early due to COVID-19 will be eligible for a Visa Application Charge waiver when they decide to return to Australia. If WHMs are not eligible to lodge a further application because they have passed the age limit for a WHM visa, they will be able to receive a refund instead.
Longer term reforms
Supporting tourism and hospitality in rural and remote areas of Australia
WHMs fill labour shortages in regional areas where the ‘peaks and troughs of seasonal labour needs are in motion’, with WHMs’ mobility enabling them to undertake short-term work where there is a demand for workers, and travel elsewhere when the work is complete.
Yet the Committee was told that visa extension options designed to encourage labour into tourism and hospitality in northern Australia can inadvertently make it more difficult to fill roles outside northern Australia in situations where employers find it just as difficult to find employees. Many argued that the same provisions that apply to northern Australia should apply to other areas with significant labour shortages.
Mr Rowan Ramsey MP, Member for Grey, noted concerns from his constituents about filling employment vacancies in some sectors:
I have become increasingly aware of businesses in the more remote areas of my electorate who are finding it extremely difficult to attract staff, particularly in the hospitality and tourism sectors. Unfortunately positions in these sectors in Southern Australia do not qualify workers for the visa extension.
As noted by Mr Ramsey, a large proportion of his electorate is classified as either Remote or Very Remote, and employers in the electorate are frustrated that ‘while WHM visas assist other remote industries to find a workforce, hospitality and tourism do not attract the same concession’.
According to Mr Ramsey:
Operating businesses in these remote parts of Australia is difficult at the best of times, but it is essential for all Australians that conditions exist in which the operators can profitably run their businesses. It is a great frustration to them, as it is to me personally, that we cannot convince young unemployed Australians into the ‘Outback’ to take vacant positions, the pathways offers a life-changing opportunity for individuals to break the unemployment cycle.
Mr Ramsey noted that other Members of Parliament with ‘outback’ electorates, including the Members for Durack, O’Connor and Parkes, are ‘strongly supportive of the rules applicable to WHM visas in northern Australia being extended to the remote areas of central Australia.
The Hon David Littleproud MP, Member for Maranoa, noted increasing concerns for his constituents who are struggling to attract staff:
Critically, one of the main factors presently threatening the existence of the beloved Australian outback pub is lack of staff. As brought to my attention from Maranoa hotel owners and managers in towns such as Roma, Mitchell, Charleville, Toobeah and Mungindi, sourcing staff has become near impossible. As one hotel owner highlighted recently, despite advertising extensively locally and in publications as far afield as Brisbane, and offering above award wages and other incentives, they managed to attract only three applicants for a bar staff position. All three applicants then failed to attend their interviews. Contrastingly, backpackers on Working Holiday Maker Program visas regularly contact them asking if positions are available, expressing that they would love to visit rural Australia and work in an outback pub. However, the backpackers often lose interest in positions when it is revealed hospitality work is not eligible under the Working Holiday Maker Program in that area.
Mr Simon Aniere from the Auski Inland Motel in Meekatharra, approximately 800 kilometres north of Perth reflected the challenges of attracting reliable Australians to work in his motel:
When we took over this business, we tried Australian chefs but found they didn’t really want to be here so far from the city, were unmotivated, and were unreliable. We also tried to be patriotic and employ local cleaning staff, but this left us highly stressed as they were just as unreliable and would not show up for work. We found that when they reached their required 15 hours a week (to qualify for the “dole”), we wouldn’t see them until the next week. This left us with no option than to change our business model to save our business and sanity.
Mr Aniere also made comment on the failure of previous programs to incentivise Australians to work in more remote areas of Australia where there are jobs:
I also remember past government programs where unemployed were encouraged to move to where the jobs were with financial incentives but the uptake was minimal, so an abject failure.
…I can nominate 3 hotels, a caravan park, a supermarket, and 2 service stations as well as us, in this town, that heavily rely on backpackers to come here to keep their businesses afloat.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) reflected on the barriers to recruiting Australians for seasonal work and the reasons Australia relies on the WHM visa to fill workforce gaps in tourism both during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond:
For the labour market, the working holiday-maker visa and its conditions overcome some of the barriers to seeking labour from Australians for seasonal work. The barriers include that work often doesn't lead to a career. It is short term, so a person is less likely to travel to do it, it is often remote from most population centres and far away from family and friends, and it requires resources to get there and stay there, which are often not available to unemployed Australians.
According to ACCI, WHMs are ideally placed to supplement the lack of available domestic labour for the tourism sector:
Their willingness to travel at their own expense, up to these short-term jobs, and their keenness to do work mean that the profile of the working holiday maker is really important as well. Many of them are graduates or would-be graduates. They might be just short of doing university of have just done university degrees. They’ve got an enthusiasm and a willingness to work, and our members tell us that’s a really important component of the type of attitude and enthusiasm they bring to the work, yet they’re not having an expectation that there’s a long-term career for them in that.
The Whitsunday Charter Boat Industry Association (WCBIA) provided a niche industry perspective on the importance of WHMs to the tourism workforce. According to the WCBIA:
The Whitsundays has always struggled with a very limited crew pool for marine tourism operators and the hospitality sector to recruit from. The transient nature of the industry means operators are constantly cycling crew. One of the Whitsundays’ major marine operators has a staff turnover for the year of close to 25%. Another turns over an annual average of 16 staff to look after just one vessel. Others report cycling through similar numbers and looking for new crew approximately every two to three months.
WCBIA noted that, as few Australian applicants to these jobs are available, the impact of COVID-19 has exacerbated an already difficult situation:
Crew positions such as ‘deckhands’ and ‘hosts/hostesses’ are considered non-skilled and have traditionally been affected by seasonality and perceptions around the type of work and pay. The requirement to spend time at sea, away from homes and families, particularly on multi-day tours, contributes to these types of jobs being unpopular with Australians.
WHMs are likely to undertake this work in a way that combines earning with holiday making. According the WCBIA:
Conversely, they are very attractive positions for Working Holiday Makers, who can enjoy time on the water in a beautiful part of the world in a unique hospitality and tourism role. This fundamental difference in attitudes is another factor that manifests itself clearly in terms of customer service.
However, WHMs also contribute to the tourism industry more generally through their own travels. The Australian Tourism Industry Council (ATIC) noted that the loss of WHMs due to COVID-19 was having an impact on communities and tourism centres that ordinarily received ‘strong volumes of these high-valued tourists.’
Adventure Queensland told the Committee in their submission about the immense value of WHMs to both the state and national tourism industry:
[WHMs] leave our shores as Australian Tourism promoters driving ongoing benefits to the Australian economy for many years after they return home.
Specifically, for Queensland, the international youth and adventure market provides in excess of $849m in revenues to the economy of which 65% is spent in regional centres.
Mrs Hana Robinson, of Adventure Queensland, stated that it was imperative that the tourism industry assisted WHMs to have a positive experience, because previous WHMs contribute to spreading the reputation of the program. She told the committee:
The tourism industry … is really making sure that we are recommending reputable employers … It is absolutely fundamental to our reputation. They all leave us as ambassadors for Australia. So it’s very important that whatever interaction they have whilst they are here is a good one.
Miss Vanessa Klaus, a recent participant in the program, affirmed that recommendations from friends who had previously come to Australia as WHMs influenced her desire to travel here. Ms Klaus said that:
I actually have friends … who’d been in Australia before for a working holiday visa, and they told me the best about it. They were like, ‘Australia is amazing’ … They were really optimistic about Australia.
The positive experiences of WHMs and the spread of this reputation to family and friends appears to be a driving factor in promoting Australia as a desirable tourism destination for WHMs.
The Australian Hotels Association and Tourism Accommodation Australia discussed the importance of WHMs to economic recovery in their sector, noting:
If we are to build a pipeline of local workers to fill skills shortages in the wake of COVID-19 recovery, we require skilled workers today to help train and mentor Australian apprentices and trainees. For example, if a business cannot source a reliable, skilled and full time chef to service their needs, they effectively cannot reopen in many cases. This jeopardises the jobs of other workers who are employed at the business.
In this regard AHA and TAA recommended that WHMs ‘should be able to transition to the skilled migration pathway’ through either the employer sponsored or independent streams. In this way ‘businesses who have employed and trained WHMs’ will be able to ‘retain the employee during COVID-19 recovery, ensuring stability and continuity in these uncertain times’.
In its Interim Report the Committee recommended that the northern Australia provision be extended, to allow work in hospitality, tourism and other industries to apply in all regional, rural and remote areas.
Home Affairs pointed out that implementation of this recommendation would result in a ‘big increase in the supply of potential labour into those areas and into those sectors’ once international travel arrangements returned to pre-COVID-19 levels.
Businesses in rural and remote areas face significant challenges employing staff, a challenge particularly evident in the tourism and hospitality industry. These labour shortages existed prior to COVID-19 and have been exacerbated by international border closures.
The tourism and hospitality industry has been one of the hardest hit industries during the pandemic. It was one of the first to close due to health restrictions and it will be one of the last to recover.
Whilst tourism and hospitality play an important role in sustaining Australia’s regional and remote communities and the industries they support such as agriculture and mining, attracting Australians to take up these jobs in remote parts of Australia has been difficult.
Working Holiday Makers, comparatively, have greater flexibility, a desire to visit regional Australia and are happy to undertake this short term work so they can fund further travels.
Northern Australia has the benefit of Work and Holiday (462) visa holders being able to count their work in tourism and hospitality in northern Australia towards their second- and third-year visas. Other rural and remote areas face similar challenges and therefore should have similar provisions in place to enable them to attract WHMs to fill their workforce shortages.
The Committee recommends the Government enable Working Holiday Maker visa holders to count their work in tourism and hospitality in hard-to-staff areas of Australia towards their second- and third-year visas.
The Committee recommends that Working Holiday (subclass 417) and Work and Holiday (subclass 462) visa holders should be able to work in tourism and hospitality in all hard-to-staff rural and remote areas of Australia as part of their 88 days or 6 months to qualify for their second- or third- year WHM visa.
Adjusting geographic classifications
Throughout the inquiry, submitters and witnesses raised issues regarding the regional classifications of the businesses seeking to employ WHMs across a range of industries.
The ability of WHMs qualifying for second- and third-year visas to stay in a job for more than six months is determined on the basis of regional classifications set by Home Affairs. These classifications are reasonably consistent across different visa classes with variation of the inclusion of major cities in the definition of regional, such as Perth or the Gold Coast.
The Committee heard evidence that a blanket application of ‘regional’ to classify any area outside a major capital city does not sufficiently reflect the address the unique challenges different areas of Australia experience.
Mr Ramsey noted that he had previously advocated that the provisions extended to northern Australia, allowing WHMs to claim time working for tourism and hospitality employers would be appropriate in rural and remote areas of Australia, such as in his own electorate, given the similarity in the challenges faced. He noted that the following geographical classifications should be applied to his areas in relation to WHM visas:
We have previously collectively requested the conditions applying to the WHM visa applicable above the Tropic Of Capricorn be extended to the Remote and Very Remote regions of Australia as per the ABS Australian Statistical Geography Standard Remoteness Structure.
The Hon David Littleproud suggested a similar change to the geographical definitions that apply to the WHM visa for more remote areas of Australia.
A suggested method for consideration in implementing this concept is for the provisions available under the Working Holiday Maker Program above the Tropic of Capricorn to be extended to the “Outer Regional’, ‘Remote’ and ‘Very Remote’ regions of Australia as per the Australian Statistical Geography Standard Remoteness Structure.
The agricultural and tourism sectors in particular have unique challenges accessing the workforces they need, further reinforcing the problems caused by applying the definition of ‘regional’ to any geographic location outside of Australia’s major capital cities without further nuance.
The Committee also heard evidence that boundaries drawn regarding a regional area can create inequity for agricultural employers who may be only a few kilometres from another producer who has a different geographic classification.
Growcom noted that agricultural producers in peri-urban areas are challenged by the definition of regional that is applied to WHM visas:
…its affects significant growing regions, particularly here in Queensland just outside the Brisbane and Ipswich metropolitan areas in the Lockyer Valley, Fassifern Valley and Scenic Rim region. They are ineligible, yet they are a really important growing region. The eligible postcodes cut a swathe through this particular growing region and therefore create an amount of inequity between employers competing essentially for the same pool of labour.
Growcom elaborated on this point:
Growers with operations immediately outside eligible postcodes will be trying to recruit backpackers from the same pool of labour and are at a significant disadvantage because they cannot confirm and assure those backpackers that they will have their time on their farm recognised as part of their 88-day commitment. It makes it really unfair and it's really quite difficult. These growers, who are somewhat closer to Ipswich, for example, than their neighbours, are at no advantage when it comes to recruiting people from those metropolitan centres to work on the farms.
The Central Highlands Development Corporation (CHDC) noted the problems employers in their region face due to the regional classifications based on postcodes:
For employers wishing to access this workforce, using the regional postcode as part of the eligibility criteria has posed significant problems in the Central Highlands region. Postcode 4702 encompasses more than 80 Central Queensland localities spanning some 400 kilometres distance from East to West.
CHDC also detailed the complexities around the way regions are currently classified as regional and the challenges it poses to agriculture in their region competing for staff with areas that by nature are the same as those who are classified as regional or are in northern Australia.
[Postcode] 4702 covers many Central Highlands townships including Rubyvale (regional Sapphire-Gemfields town) and Carnarvon Gorge (prime tourism region with over 60,000 visitors per year). Both the Sapphire Gemfields and Carnarvon Gorge rely heavily on a seasonal tourism workforce but have reported experiencing postcode ‘discrimination’ because of sharing the same postcode as coastal localities such as Gracemere. 4702 also covers significant agricultural producing areas such as Gindie, Comet, Rolleston, Anakie and Dingo. The 4702 postcode also encompasses a mix of locations that are within the Australian Government mapping of Northern Australia, as well as those that are not.
Similar to the northern Australia provision, in the Interim Report the Committee recommended that WHMs be allowed to count work in key industries undertaken in all peri-urban and regional areas towards their application to extend their visas.
Home Affairs noted that this recommendation is still under consideration:
I think the contrast between peri-urban horticultural work, or regional work on the edge of a city, and very remote work is significant. We certainly get feedback from a range of areas about what they see as a disadvantage in terms of being very remote when compared to an area that is regional but is perhaps more accessible and closer to some of the attractions that backpackers like to be involved with.
The Committee has heard extensive evidence both as part of this inquiry as well as its previous Inquiry into Migration in Regional Australia that suggests the application of a single definition of ‘regional’ inhibits employers in more remote parts of Australia accessing the workforces they need as they are competing with locations like the Gold Coast and Adelaide for WHMs.
For the tourism and hospitality sector, the workforce employers have to draw from in Bundaberg, for example, is much larger than the workforce in Bourke and yet they both fall equally under the category of regional. For instance if WHMs had the option of working in Bundaberg or Bourke to meet the criteria for a second- or third-year visa, the proximity of Bundaberg to the beach and to other major cities, make Bundaberg a much more attractive option.
The unique nature of agricultural work means that even if farmers are positioned close to more densely populated areas, they are often still drawing from the same pool of workers as more remote farmers because Australians are unwilling to take up jobs such as fruit picking.
At the same time, many employers in peri-urban areas, whose work sites are not classified as regional, are just a couple of kilometres away from farmers whose work and business is identical to their own and who are positioned in a ‘regional’ location.
This means that WHMs looking to undertake work in horticulture or agriculture are unlikely to choose to work for employers in peri-urban areas as it does not count towards their second- or third-year visa.
As such, the Committee recommends that the definition ‘regional’ for the purposes of migration be expanded to include tiers, to enable the conditions of visas with regional provisions to reflect the unique needs of employers in different parts of Australia.
The Committee recommends the Government review the definition of ‘regional’ for the purposes of migration with a view to providing a new tiered definition that recognises:
Smaller state capital cities;
and that the experiences and opportunities in each of these different areas will be substantially different.
In considering the new tiered definition of regional, the Government should give thought to the effect of any definition of regional for peri-urban areas, many of which have the same characteristics as regional areas just a few kilometres away.
Further reforms to the WHM Program
There are several other issues relating to the Working Holiday Maker visas raised by submitters that the Committee would like to address.
Increasing the upper age-limit
The Backpacker and Youth Tourism Advisory Panel (BYTAP) proposed that one useful change to the WHM visas is increasing the age limit to 35. According to BYTAP:
By raising the age limit to 35 for all source countries, the WHM program would capitalise on youth trends to delay ‘adulting’ or major life decisions such as marriage, parenthood and home ownership, in lieu of travel and overseas work experiences to further their careers and aspirations. For example, in the UK, the largest WHM source market, the average age for marriage is currently 35.5 years for women and 37.9 for men.
In addition to capitalising on wider demographic trends in major source countries, BYTAP stated that this would increase the revenue to Australian businesses:
Older travellers are also more likely to be financially able to afford long-haul travel, unburdened of the student debt, and free to take off on a ‘grown up gap year’. Monash University researcher Dr Jeff Jarvis has found, too, that older WHMs spend significantly more per visit than those under 25.
According to BYTAP, the age limit increase would capture new segments of the international tourism market:
Taking a gap year before tertiary education is now being augmented with sabbaticals from early to mid-career in many of the WHM source countries. Many WHMs are also location-independent, country-hopping ‘digital nomads’ who follow the seasons or take advantage of WHM programs to ‘live locally’ in different countries. A longer age bracket extends options to these travellers to return and explore Australia further.
BYTAP provided a summary of recent research on the effect that this proposed age limit increase would have:
Initial extrapolation based on research from Tourism Research Australia and the Australian Bureau of Statistics predict that raising the age limit from 30 to 35 for more WHMs would capture a larger share of visitors for Australia, without impacting existing visitor numbers from this cohort. Initial estimates predict that such an age increase would generate an extra 82,000 visitors and $817 million for the Australian economy from the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy alone.
The Committee received compelling evidence in support of increasing the upper age limit for WHM visa applicants to 35 years.
In the Committee’s view, given the higher average spending per individual tourist that is achieved by the WHM program, it will play a key role in the recovery of the tourism industry once international travel becomes possible again. Acting to ensure that as many tourists as possible enter Australia as soon as possible will assist in providing the boost that many tourist businesses and operators will need to achieve long term viability, and reduce reliance on Federal Government assistance programs like JobKeeper.
Furthermore the evidence received on the changing demographics of youth tourism shows that limiting the youth travel market up to 30 years old means that Australian tourism businesses are missing out on the recent extension of that demographic. The Committee believes that it is important for the Federal Government to capture as much of this market as possible.
This is especially the case given that many of the potential tourists in the 30-35 year age bracket will be taking career breaks. Not only do these tourists offer higher spending potential, as they have already worked for a longer period than their younger counterparts, they also are more likely to bring important skills with them. This will further help to boost the skilled workers available to employers, and in some cases may lead to WHMs transitioning to other visas which in turn increase the pool of available skilled workers in Australia.
The Committee recommends that the Government continue to seek opportunities to increase the WHM upper age limit to 35 where bilateral negotiations can yield the same outcome for Australians.
Increasing partner countries
A number of submitters advocated for an expansion of the program, and the negotiation of new WHM agreements. BYTAP stated that the government should:
Continue bilateral negotiations targeting new countries to incorporate into the WHM program, prioritising those which will deliver most value to the tourism industry, including Switzerland, Brazil and Mexico.
The Australian Chamber–Tourism noted the benefit further partner country agreements would be to Australia:
In the post pandemic environment, Australia will benefit greatly if new WHM agreements are negotiated with prospective partner countries, especially if the countries are deemed to be in the safe zone, facilitating international travel and strengthening people to people links.
The Australian Tourism Export Council also recommended that the WHM Program expand to establish agreements with more countries, specifically the 462 visa.
Continue to expand the 462 program to more countries, particularly where demand is identified (e.g. South American nations). Working with Tourism Australia to prioritise key target markets for new 462 bilaterals will also be important.
In the Committee’s view it is imperative that the Government seek to negotiate new WHM agreements, in order to increase the pipeline of potential WHMs entering Australia.
In much the same way as negotiating increases in the upper age limit for WHM visa applicants, negotiating additional WHM agreements with new countries will act to increase the pool of available WHMs, in turn increasing the flow of tourists into Australia once international travel can recommence safely.
The Committee also recognises the potential reciprocal value that can be gained for young Australians travelling to these new countries.
The Committee notes that Home Affairs, in its most recent report on the WHM program, has identified a list of countries which are currently subject to WHM agreement negotiations. The Committee is supportive of these efforts, and encourages Government to seek out new opportunities wherever possible.
The Committee recommends that the Government continue to seek opportunities to expand the WHM program through bilateral negotiations with new countries.
Greater clarity about days worked for second and third year visa applicants
In terms of applying for a second and third year visas, ATV noted that what constitutes the correct amount of specified work is often unclear. This is because the three months of specified work (and six months for a third year visa) is set according to ‘the normal number of hours per day or shift that is considered standard practice in the industry and role in which you are employed’.
BYTAP agreed, stating that:
There is also significant confusion and lack of clear information about the definition of a standard day of work for each industry, which can result in discrepancies in second and third year visa grants between travellers with the same number of standard work days. Similarly the calculation of a ‘standard day’, also causes discrepancies and inequality in the number of hours worked for many WHMs for the same visa extension.
Adventure Tourism Australia (ATV) stated that ‘the visa covers such a plethora of industries with a multitude of practices and standard working hours’, and that ‘full-time in one industry could be classed as part-time in another’ or even ‘over-time in another’. According to ATV, this definition is ‘too broad to have a one size fits all approach’, and leads to confusion for applicants, employers and those processing visas.
In a survey ATV found that nearly 58 per cent of those surveyed did not find these rules easy to understand. ATV provided an example:
We had a situation where a group of our travellers worked five six hour shifts in rural Victoria. This was standard full-time in this company, no one worked more than this. The travellers asked whether this counted as five days, or seven days. I was unsure as while it’s standard at that company, it doesn’t mean it is for the industry, but there was no way of seeing what is standard for the industry. We thought the only thing to do was to contact the government.
Myself and two of the travellers in question[s] called [the Department of Home Affairs] to ask if this would be classed as full time and if they could count these five days as seven days. The government representatives gave three different answers of yes, no and unsure. This is an issue and makes it extremely difficult for travellers and employers to have faith in the system at present.
As a response to this uncertainty, ATV noted that some WHMs are working additional hours to ensure they completed their 88 days of specified work to qualify for a second year visa. ATV provided survey results indicating that 58.2 per cent of respondents took more than four months to complete their three months of specified work, or were unable to complete the work.
In suggesting a simplified process for completing the three months specified work required to qualify for a second year visa, ATV proposed counting hours instead of days. Specifically, ATV argued for a standardised threshold of 500 hours, equivalent to 13 weeks of work at approximately 38 hours per week.
According to ATV simplifying this would increase the retention rate of WHMs who apply for a second year visa, thus increasing the benefits accrued from their time in Australia. Additionally, ATV argued that this would create ambassadors for Australia’s WHM program.
The Committee received clear feedback from organisations with in depth knowledge of the youth tourism sector about the confusion caused by the lack of clarity around what constitutes the amount of work required to qualify for second- and third-year WHM visas.
At present, it appears that this confusion could be driving down retention rates.
In the Committee’s view, this issue can be simply solved by changes to the definition of 88 days of regional work. The evidence to this inquiry proposes methods of achieving greater clarity around these definitions and the Committee encourages the Government to consider these changes to provide WHMs with a clear and consistent means of measuring the specified work required to qualify for second and third year visas.
The Committee recommends that the Department of Home Affairs give consideration to providing workers who are undertaking work as part of their 3 months or 6 months with clearer guidance about what amount of work qualifies as a ‘day’.
Restrictions on WHM retention by employers
As noted earlier in the report, a condition of the WHM visas states that WHMs cannot stay with a single employer for more than six months. While this issue was partly dealt with in the Interim Report on this inquiry, as circumstances are changing quickly, the matter requires elaboration and update.
There are exceptions to the six month limitation. WHMs can work for the same employer in Australia for more than 6 months without asking permission if the work is:
in different locations and work in any one location does not exceed 6 months
in plant and animal cultivation anywhere in Australia
in certain industries in northern Australia only
from 17 February 2020, assisting bushfire recovery efforts
from 4 April 2020, in critical sectors during the COVID-19 pandemic including agriculture, food processing, health, aged and disability care and childcare
and if you want to work longer than six months with one employer in any other circumstance you need to request permission.
The six-month limitation was raised as an issue by a number of submitters to the inquiry. According to BYTAP, the restriction on time spent with a single employer required adjustment to:
Enable WHMs to work an additional six months with one employer if they work in the following high demand and critical sectors in any part of regional Australia (ie extending beyond Northern Australia), which are unable to be filled by Australians:
Agriculture, forestry and fishing
Health care, disability care and aged care (similar to the current relaxation of work hours for international students).
The ANU Development Policy Centre raised concerns about this move, when it is coupled with earlier reforms to allow for second- and third-year WHM visas. According to the ANU Development Policy Centre, this creates a situation where WHMs can ‘come to Australia and work for three years on one farm with no labour market testing and no approval required’.
According to the ANU Development Policy Centre, this measure, along with others, mean that ‘at some point we have to face the issue of whether we have gone too far in converting these visas from holiday visas into agricultural visas’.
ACCI noted that the six month restriction on staying with a single employer provided benefits to the tourism industry:
There are limitations on how long [WHMs] can stay with employers, but there’s a lot of flexibility in the working holiday maker visa for them to move from job to job and even job type.
This in turn spreads both the economic and workforce benefits WHMs bring to Australia. According to ACCI:
Many working holiday stay in one or two locations, but a large number move frequently. They stay in a whole range of accommodation. As I say, they spend more money than they earn. They contribute to the local economies and regions they visit. They can spread the benefit of their expenditure over a wide range of regions. Their mobility is critically important for tourism… They’re really an important part of the tourism mix in Australia.
The Migrant Workers Centre (MWC) noted that this requirement places WHMs at greater risk of unfair working conditions:
This also means that WHMs are always excluded from seeking any remedy when they are dismissed from their job in a harsh, unjust or unreasonable manner. Employees have to be employed for at least 6 months before they can lodge an application for unfair dismissal to the Fair Work Commission. Temporary migrant workers are discouraged from raising issues about occupational health and safety or wage theft because they are not protected against unfair dismissal when their employer takes adverse action against them.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Home Affairs noted that some changes had been made to this restriction:
To ensure continuing access to essential goods and services, the Government introduced changes to allow temporary visa holders, including WHMs, to remain working in critical sectors including health and aged care, disability services, agriculture, food processing and childcare during the COVID-19 pandemic. WHMs employed in these critical sectors are exempt from the usual six month work limitation with one employer.
The Committee supported this change in its Interim Report, but took the view that these changes did not go far enough. As a result, it recommended that the lifting of this restriction be extended, for a 12 month period and subject to review, to allow WHMs:
…to work for the same employer for more than six months, if they in peri-urban, regional, rural and remote parts of Australia to provide more certainty for visa holders and employers.
The Committee accepts the thinking behind limiting the time that WHMs can spend with any single employer. This encourages WHMs to move around the country, and to both boost the available workforce and spend their money in a range of different areas. The Committee notes that this is particularly valuable to regional areas.
However, in the Committee’s view the adjustments put in place by Government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are warranted.
The Committee also notes the evidence received that this limitation has the potential to be detrimental for WHMs. In the Committee’s view it is possible to strike a balance between providing employers who struggle to find staff with ensuring that the original policy goals of the limitation are met.
By refining the provisions allowing WHMs to work for a single employer for more than six months in certain industries, and then limiting this to geographic areas where employers are finding it hard to engage suitable staff, the Committee believes this balance can be struck. It is possible that such a balance will also drive more tourists into the rural and remote regions of Australia, thus improving the position of businesses in these areas both in terms of access to suitable staff and in terms of the tourism spending these businesses attract.
This move will also help to address the concerns raised by some submitters that the WHM program is becoming perceived as a de facto agricultural labour program. By expanding the scope of industries that can engage WHMs for longer than six months, the cultural exchange elements of the program will be further emphasised, as more WHMs spend more time in rural and remote areas, deepening their experience of Australian life and culture.
The Committee recommends that Working Holiday (subclass 417) and Work and Holiday (subclass 462) visa holders should be able to work for the same employer for more than 6 months in hard-to-staff rural and remote areas of Australia without asking permission in the following industries:
Agriculture, forestry and fishing;
Health care, disability care and aged care.