The Committee received evidence from numerous stakeholders in the agricultural sector about the importance of Working Holiday Makers (WHM) to the industry. The impact of the WHM shortage on the agricultural and horticultural industry was well covered in the Interim Report and was the reason for that report. Some points are worth amplifying given the positive response the Interim Report received.
WHMs have a unique role in supporting the agricultural sector. The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) referred to the 2018 ABARES Farm Survey, which indicated that:
On vegetable and fruit and nut farms, backpackers accounted for around 20 per cent of all workers at the peak of seasonal employment. WHMs are also employed in other parts of the agriculture sector, but they play a particularly key role in horticulture.
Mr Craig Pressler, of 2PH Farms, explained that WHMs ‘[account] for the majority, approximately 80%, of the fresh produce industry’s harvest labour workforce.’
In many instances, WHMs undertake critical work which is typically not undertaken by Australians. The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) confirmed ‘it is remarkably difficult to attract Australian workers to jobs in picking, packing and processing of produce’ and told the Committee that:
The reality is that displaced Aussie workers may be reluctant to leave their homes and support networks in the cities and suburbs to relocate to rural and regional Australia to perform physically demanding work from early in the morning until late in the evening and, perhaps, to spend their nights sleeping in caravan parks or tents.
The sudden decrease of WHMs in Australia since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic has had a further impact on workforce availability.
Regarding anticipated labour shortages during the summer 2020-21 harvest season, Mr Casey Brown of Agri Labour stated:
We’re seeing now that, as a result of COVID, agriculture businesses who generally would be employing working holiday makers to fill their roles are not getting enough applications to take up the roles. I think we will see produce commodities being unharvested.
The Committee also received evidence which showed the link between WHMs undertaking agricultural work and their desire to receive a second or third year visa. The Australian Fresh Produce Alliance told the Committee that many WHMs:
…are only working in fresh produce due to the requirement to undertake this work to secure a second WHM visa and remain in Australia for another 12 months.
The ANU Development Policy Centre also acknowledged the significant contribution of WHMs to the agricultural sector, but echoed statements that the WHM program is not designed exclusively to provide a seasonal labour supply, and lacks the regulation of an agricultural program like the Seasonal Worker Programme.
The Committee acknowledges the response of the Federal Government to the Interim Report and the actions already taken.
The Committee also acknowledges that despite that response, workforce shortages remain in the agricultural and horticultural industries. For instance Mr Andrew Metcalfe AO, Secretary of DAWE told a recent Senate Estimates Hearing that
We're yet to see the full impact of these measures, but, despite the unknowns,…the gap is significant. As a result, the department will continue to closely work with industry, states and territories, and across the Australian government to develop and implement initiatives to assist industry to address this likely labour shortage in the agriculture sector.
Despite the Federal Government’s announcements to encourage and incentivise Australians and visa holders to go to out to regional areas and pick fruit, people remain unaware of these opportunities.
The missing piece is a marketing campaign to encourage people to take up these opportunities. There must be a concerted effort by the Government to make people aware of the changes that have been made and the incentives that have been put in place to make it easier for Australians and visa holders to take up this work.
The changes made in response to the Interim report were part of a broader response to labour shortages induced by the COVID-19 Pandemic. As part of its response to the pandemic the Government established the COVID-19 Pandemic Event visa (subclass 408) to enable visa holders - including some former WHMs - 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. This measure has enabled visa holders contributing to critical sectors to continue to work in those sectors to assist Australia through the pandemic.
Like the Federal Government’s changes made in response to the WHM shortages the 408 visa is relatively unknown, even though it also provides flexibilities for temporary visa holders to stay in Australia and undertake work in critical sectors such as agriculture.
The Committee has a view that there needs to be a targeted marketing campaign to make the temporary visa holders aware of the opportunities available to them under the 408 visa and so that it can have a greater take up than it presently does.
The Committee recommends that the Government instigate an advertising campaign to promote measures it has taken to encourage Australians and visa holders to undertake agricultural work to meet the shortages arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Committee recommends that the Government undertake a tailored marketing campaign to promote the COVID-19 Pandemic event (408 subclass) visa to temporary visa holders in Australia.
Workplace issues facing WHM visa holders
At the time the Interim Report was presented, the Committee had not finished hearing evidence on workplace practices in the agricultural and horticultural sectors. However the Committee made a recommendation for a hotline for WHMs to be established where, amongst other things, they can access information on their work rights, workplace exploitation concerns, accommodation and employment options in one place.
The Committee subsequently heard evidence from TripTech about a potential ‘one stop shop’ mobile application for information on transport, accommodation and work opportunities for WHMs.
TripTech advised the Committee that it has developed an app, currently in use in New Zealand. While not endorsing any particular app, an app of this sort could help augment such a hotline given the range of ways WHMs access information.
Unlawful employment arrangements
The committee received evidence about the role of unlawful employment practices in the agricultural sector.
In 2015 Professor Allan Fels and Dr David Cousins, were commissioned by the Government to undertake the Report of the Migrant Worker’s Taskforce. Prof Fels and Dr Cousins gave evidence to this Committee about academic research which surveyed 1440 WMHs and:
found that 32 per cent of WHMs earned $12 per hour or less and 46 percent earned $15 or less in their lowest paid job. Almost three quarters of WHMs indicated that they worked 21 hours or more per week. At the time of the survey the standard hourly rate for a casual worker under the Horticulture Award was $22.13. Only 9 per cent of underpaid WHMs had taken action to recover their unpaid wages and only 4 per cent had contacted the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) about it.
The Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) provided evidence that six per cent of all formal disputes during the year 2019-20 involved allegations in relation to working holiday-makers.
In 2019-20 the top five industries for completed FWO formal disputes involving working holiday-makers were: accommodation and food services, 29 per cent; administrative and support services, 14 per cent; construction, 12 per cent; agriculture, 12 per cent; and retail trade, eight per cent.
In 2018 FWO investigated 638 harvest trail businesses and found that 70 per cent of the employers who employed temporary workers – most of them WHMs – had breached Australia’s workplace laws.
The Committee also received feedback from industry bodies on this issue. For example, Adventure Tourism Victoria (ATV) conducted a survey of WHMs in which found that 20 per cent of respondents were paid under $10 an hour.
According to ATV the need to work in specified locations inn specified industries in order to qualify for a second or third year visa drives workplace exploitation:
We had wage brackets, essentially, and the average wage of our respondents was $16.97. The minimum wage in Australia is $19.84. JobKeeper is currently $1,500 and JobSeeker is currently $1,200, so it's vastly below what you would expect. It's because of that second year visa. We're dangling that carrot, and exploitation, in some instances, is put up with [it].
In some cases, the underpayment of WHMs leads to the denial of a further visa. For example, the Migrant Worker Centre (MWC) noted that:
Visa extension is denied when WHMs were not “remunerated for the [specified regional] work in accordance with relevant Australian legislation and awards” even though they have completed the specified regional work. According to the records of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, there were at least three WHMs in 2017 who were denied visa extension and appealed the decision. The Tribunal acknowledged that the appeal applicants performed the required work and yet confirmed they did not meet the visa extension condition because they had been paid below relevant award rates.
The MWC noted the damage that exploitation does to the reputation of the program, with some rural towns being given nicknames such as ‘Horror Hill’ or ‘Helltown’ amongst WHMs. The MWC provided an example of the exploitation a WHM was subjected to in these two locations:
Michael (pseudonym) needed to work in rural areas for at least 88 days if he wanted to extend his Working Holiday visa to a second year. He met a labour-hire provider in “Horror Hill” and got a strawberry-picking job. To work at the farm, Michael had to rent a bed from the labour-hire provider. He paid the labour-hire provider $120 per week to stay with 15 others in a four-bedroom house. He paid him an extra $5 per day for transportation.
Michael was paid at a rate of $2 per tray and barely earned what he owed to his labour-hire provider/landlord. He left “Horror Hill” to fill the remainder of his 88 days with a better paying job. He got a job at an abattoir in “Helltown” from another labour-hire provider, who also charged him $120 for a bed. At the abattoir, Michael was paid his award rate but still earned little money: his payslip would list all kinds of deductions such as employment commission to the labour-hire provider, training, and Q-fever vaccination.
Further, the exploitation of WHMs goes beyond the financial aspects of their treatment. The Retail Supply Chain Alliance (RSCA) raised an example of the sexual exploitation of WHMs:
in March 2020 it was reported that a Queensland farmer was sexually exploiting several working migrants on the Working Holiday Maker program. Devastatingly, cases of rape and other sexual exploitations are not uncommon across the country, having recently also been exposed in Victoria. Last year, a case of aggravated kidnapping, rape, and indecent assault was also revealed in South Australia.
Several suggestions for providing better regulation of WHMs in Australian workplaces were raised during the course of this inquiry.
For example, ATV noted that the introduction of a database or similar tool where employers had to be demonstrating adherence to workplace standards would significantly allay concerns about workplace exploitation held by WHMs.
Additionally, ATV argued for an approved employer list, similar to that used in relation to the Seasonal Workers Programme. This would, according to ATV, keep ‘the employer accountable, make it easy for the government to manage and given the worker some guarantee about who they’re working for’.
The role of labour hire firms and their lack of regulation was an issue for the Migrant Worker Taskforce. The RSCA argued that:
No serious progress will be made in terms of addressing compliance levels in the horticulture industry unless a national approach to the regulation of labour hire contractors is established.
According to the RSCA, this approach has been successful in relation to other workers, including the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP):
…the regulation of labour hire contractors that partake in the SWP significantly reduced scope for non-compliant contractors. The introduction of state-based labour hire licensing schemes in Victoria and Queensland have also successfully reduced incidences of non-compliance by labour hire contractors, and created a level playing field amongst businesses in the industry.
Professor Fels and Dr Cousins noted the important work undertaken by the Migrant Workers Taskforce in relation to this issue:
The Task Force provided a comprehensive package of recommendations to deal with these problems including strengthening the legislative protections for these [WHMs] and other migrant workers; enhancing their awareness of employment rights and how to access remedies; making it easier to access remedies; strengthening the enforcement of employment laws; and introducing a national labour hire scheme targeted at problem industries, including horticulture.
Professor Fels noted the Government’s support for the recommendations of the Report of the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce and suggested that while he understands the time it takes to implement the recommendations, it’s important the Government implements the recommendations.
…the government has accepted our recommendations. It is working on them. I think some of the key ones have gone off to that industrial relations group that has been set up pursuant to dealing with COVID, and after, but all the funds are with government, which continues to support the core recommendations. I'm not critical of the government or the COVID related labour stuff. The whole thing has actually taken quite a lot of time, since the announcement in 2015 that we would be doing something about this, and so we need to keep pressing on with the whole thing.
This inquiry was not an inquiry into worker exploitation. However, the issue of WHM exploitation was raised in this inquiry, and were of serious concern to the Committee.
The same industrial laws that apply to all Australians apply to WHM visa holders whether they work in the city or the country. If an employer has done the wrong thing, he or she should feel the full force of the law. Concerns raised about worker exploitation need to be taken seriously.
While the extent of the exploitation of WHMs in parts of the Australian workforce is not quantifiably known, no incident is acceptable. It is also clearly an issue that is impacting on the reputation of Australia.
If the number of media reports concerning the exploitation WMH increase, those reports may affect the decision of WHMs to choose Australia over time.
Any steps that can be taken to reduce workplace exploitation in key industries should be taken and will ultimately be beneficial to the future of the WHM program.
The Committee notes that the Government already has a clear, evidence-based pathway towards addressing the issue in the recommendations of the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce. In the Committee’s view, the implementation of these recommendations should be given a much higher priority by Government.
In its Interim Report the Committee recommended a hotline be developed to provide WHMs with information on workplace rights and other opportunities while they are in Australia (eg. accommodation tours etc.). The Committee sees merit in augmenting such a hotline with the development of an app which will help provide WHMs with an additional relevant and accessible source of information.
The Committee recommends that the Government expedite the implementation of the recommendations of the Report of the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce.
The Committee recommends that an app be developed for WHMs to augment the hotline recommended in the Interim Report.
During the course of the inquiry it came to the attention of the Committee that whilst the FWO receives complaints directly from WHMs about workplace issues, there isn’t an established feedback mechanism between the FWO or government agencies and embassies of the countries with whom Australia has WHM agreements.
FWO does a lot of work to disseminate information about WHMs work rights, engaging with ‘groups like community organisations, consulates, embassies, education providers, migrant resource centres’, however there is no regular avenue through which to engage embassies about complaints that don’t come directly to FWO.
Austrade and DFAT confirmed they don’t receive any communication from embassies regarding worker exploitation complaints.
The Committee recommends that, because of the importance of dealing with unfair work practices, and the importance of Australia remaining a reputable place for WHMs to visit, FWO should regularly engage with embassies to ensure issues being raised by WHMs with embassies are being addressed.
The Committee recommends that the Fair Work Ombudsman develop an embassy liaison group to liaise on a regular basis about workplace issues raised with embassies by their citizens.
Other temporary migration programs
Given the labour shortages resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, this Committee has sought to encourage all available people in Australia to undertake work in agriculture and horticulture for the reasons outlined in the Interim Report.
As the Interim Report foreshadowed, the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) made a submission to the Committee that proposes putting in place special arrangements to encourage those. Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) and Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) holders, to undertake work in agriculture and horticulture.
Temporary Protection Visas and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas
The Committee made inquiries into SHEV and TPV holders and any barriers that might exist for them to undertake work in critical industries facing shortages in regional areas of Australia.
The Department of Home Affairs (Home Affairs) noted that there are no legislative barriers to SHEV holders from doing some of the agricultural, horticultural or tourism work in remote regional areas:
There's no legislative barrier. The barriers might go to issues of language skills. As we know, many of the people who've arrived had no or very limited English language. Depending on what they've done to improve their English language skills, that would be an impediment. As would be a lack of any skills or work history that they have from their home countries that they bring to the table. But, in terms of their ability to access that labour market, no, there are no restrictions.
Home Affairs provided information on the numbers of SHEV and TPV holders currently in Australia:
In terms of the numbers, as at 22 October, there were 12,165 holders of the SHEV, of which 82.2 per cent were male, and there were 5,313 of the temporary protection visas, of which 85 per cent are adult males.
Home Affairs explained the distinctions between the two visas and their purposes:
The difference between the two visas, in short, is that the SHEV is available for those who have an intention to work and study in regional Australia, whereas the temporary protection visas do not have that. The SHEV is for five years and the TPV is for three years. I think there is an important distinction to make around the intention. The grant of the visa at the time of granting is based on you having the intention [to work and study in regional Australia].
While people who arrived in Australia by boat have the option of the two visas, the SHEV was specifically intended ‘as an incentive for people to move to regional areas by offering the possibility that, at the end of your period on a SHEV, if you have met certain preconditions, you would be able to apply for a range of permanent visas’.
Home Affairs further explained the purpose of the SHEV visa:
… was not to supplement our skilled program; it was to provide a pathway and incentive to people who had arrived here illegally, who Australia had determined were owed protection. It has given them temporary protection and their visa will be reassessed at the appropriate time. If they are no longer owed protection, then there is an expectation that they would return home. However, we have given people an avenue to get to permanent residency, but it is not a concessional pathway; it is a similar pathway to those who would get the same visa. So in that respect we have expectations around the evidence: if they're going into a skilled occupation, they will need to show the evidence that they can perform that skilled occupation.
Home Affairs provided the Committee with an approximation on the number of SHEV holders who had relocated to regional areas:
In terms of the location, of the 12,165 SHEV holders, there are currently 8,000 in metropolitan areas and there are 4,127 in regional areas. To give a short breakdown: the majority, obviously, are in Victoria and New South Wales.
In terms of the definitions [of regional], it is similar to the working holiday-maker visa but not completely aligned. For the SHEV pathways, all states and territories had opt-in arrangements when the visa was created. Again, we used specified postcodes to designate the regional areas. All postcodes in the ACT, Northern Territory, South Australia and Tasmania are contained within the current definition, and in New South Wales it is anything outside Sydney, Newcastle, Central Coast and Illawarra. In Victoria it is anything outside Melbourne, Geelong, Bendigo, Ballarat or Shepparton. In Queensland it is locations outside Brisbane and the Gold Coast. In Western Australia it is locations outside Perth. So, at the moment, just under 33 per cent of SHEV holders live in any of those designated regional areas, based on the data that we do hold.
To meet the pathway requirements to be eligible for a permanent visa, SHEV holders, for a total of 42 months, need to have been:
Employed in a SHEV regional area and not received certain social security benefits (Special Benefit payments), or
Enrolled and physically attending full-time study in a SHEV regional area, or
A combination of the above.
In addition to meeting the above requirements, SHEV holders are also required to meet the requirements of the specific permanent visa they are applying for. For most skilled visas, eligibility requirements include:
English language requirements; while some visas require ‘functional English’ (an average band score of at least 4.5 on the 4 components of the International English Language Testing (IELTS)), many require ‘competent English’ (at least 6 for each of the 4 components of the IELTS).
evidence of a skilled occupation, including:
having an eligible occupation on the relevant list of eligible skilled occupations.
skilled assessments issued by a relevant skills assessing authorities.
evidence of work experience in their skilled occupation, up to three years may be required.
age requirements, often requiring applicant to be under 45.
The Government recently announced it is providing unlimited free English classes under the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP), making it easier for SHEV holders to meet the English language requirements of permanent visas.
Home Affairs provided more information on the AMEP and the recent changes:
The AMEP is delivered in 58 regions across Australia, including a number of remote and regional locations. In locations with no AMEP site, a distance learning option is available. Distance learning provides learning materials supported by regular contact with a qualified teacher for clients unable to attend face-to-face tuition or living at least 50 km from an AMEP site.
On 28 August 2020, the Australian Government announced major reforms that will be implemented to the AMEP. This includes legislative changes to remove the 510 hour cap to provide unlimited hours of tuition and raise the AMEP eligibility threshold and exit point from functional English to vocational English. Time limits on enrolling, commencing and completing AMEP tuition will also be removed for those already in Australia as at 1 October 2020.
Home Affairs noted that the first SHEV holders are only just completing their five years on the SHEV and are eligible to apply for permanent visas.
There's a small number where, if they commenced in 2015, they have to do 3½ years working, and so, if they moved to a regional area and have worked for that period, they would have only become eligible last year even to apply.
At present, the pathway to permanency is primarily via skilled, family and student visa classes, and may be an option to SHEV holders if they, or a member of their family, completes 42 months of study or work in a regional area during the five year period of the SHEV, and are able to meet the requirement of relevant visa classes.
Home Affairs elaborated on the pathways to permanency available to visa holders:
It may be difficult, but if someone comes here and their qualification from offshore is not recognised, they do have the ability to do a bridging course or seek recertification that shows they reached that skill level. They are also required, obviously, to meet the English language level that would be required normally. So there are viable pathways there, but the reality is the government has chosen to be quite generous in the breadth of visas which they can apply for…. There are a range of pathway options. However, there have been no specific concessions that would say: because you're on a SHEV you get, if you like, an advantage over a visa applicant for any of those visas.
Home Affairs provided the list of permanent visas SHEV holders could apply for once they have met the SHEV pathway requirements and if they meet the criteria of the visa:
Subclass 132 (Business Talent)
Subclass 188 (Business Innovation and Investment (Provisional)
Subclass 189 (Skilled—Independent)
Subclass 190 (Skilled—Nominated)
Subclass 476 (Skilled—Recognised Graduate)
Subclass 491 (Skilled Work Regional (Provisional)
Subclass 858 (Distinguished Talent)
Subclass 186 (Employer Nomination Scheme)
Subclass 482 (Temporary Skill Shortage visa)
Subclass 494 (Skilled Employer Sponsored Regional (Provisional)).
Subclass 590 (Student Guardian).
Subclass 143 (Contributory Parent)
Subclass 445 (Dependent Child)
Subclass 804 (Aged Parent)
Subclass 835 (Remaining Relative)
Subclass 837 (Orphan Relative)
Subclass 838 (Aged Dependent Relative)
Subclass 864 (Contributory Aged Parent)
Subclass 884 (Contributory Aged Parent (Temporary)).
Subclass 010 (Bridging A)
Subclass 030 (Bridging C).
The Committee heard evidence, however, that SHEV and TPV holders face significant practical barriers in meeting the requirements of the available permanent visas and hence were unlikely to take up opportunities in regional areas, particularly in agriculture and horticulture, without further incentives. RCOA told the Committee this is due to the lack of a ‘realistic pathway to permanency’.
RCOA told the Committee that many of the skilled, family or student visas are ‘out of reach for refugees on the SHEV’:
The criteria of these other visas are incredibly onerous and prohibitive for most people. This is especially true because people on a SHEV are not able to access any federal government education support which would support them to attain the skills and education required for many of these visas. As such, the SHEV has failed to provide a realistic incentive for people to move to regional areas, and therefore failed in its policy intention in encouraging regional resettlement.
The pathways to attainment of educational or skills qualification was another difficulty faced by SHEV holders, and was discussed by the Hazara Coordination Group:
TPVs have generally prevented people from even attending tertiary or other educational institutions in Australia. That prevention is not that these TPV holders have not had the right to attend higher education; the problem is that, if they attend higher education, they have to pay an international fee for attending either TAFE or university in Australia.
The Hazara Coordination Group added that, as many TPV holders are ‘the breadwinners of their families’, it is:
… very difficult to ask someone who looks after family members overseas, for someone who has already suffered mentally and emotionally, to engage in really substantial learning. Our own experience shows that for the first generations of our families to come here on TPVs, until they were on TPVs and were not able to bring their families here, it was very difficult for them to engage in any meaningful language learning program, including the adult migration program.
Further, while many TPV holders have been able to learn basic English, find employment and in some cases establish businesses, this ‘doesn’t result in any meaningful qualification', the Hazara Coordination Group told the Committee.
The Committee heard from Home Affairs that TPV and SHEV holders are classified as overseas students, and therefore have to pay full fee if they are to engage in VET or tertiary training:
Temporary Protection visa (TPV) and Safe Haven Enterprise visa (SHEV) holders do not have access to government funded higher education. Students who are in Australia on a temporary visa, including those on a SHEV or TPV, are considered to be overseas students under the Higher Education Support Act 2003.
The Hazara Coordination Group told the Committee that many SHEV holders do not consider the current pathway to permanency realistic as there is ‘an uncertainty at the end of the process’. The Hazara Coordination Group elaborated on this view:
At the moment, if you work in a construction centre in Sydney and if you work in the agriculture sector in Shepparton—of course the level of income that you could get is completely different from those two—the problem is that the TPV holders are calculating and saying, 'If we spend 3½ years in regional areas, and, after 3½ years, there is no prospect for me to get a permanent residency through the SHEV, the best thing for me is to spend that time in a metropolitan area.'
RCOA suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic has made these pathways even more difficult for SHEV holders to access:
Many holders of the SHEV have worked diligently to meet the work criteria of the SHEV pathway requirements, doing paid and lawful work in regional Australia to count towards the 3.5 years (42 months) they need to demonstrate they have not been reliant on income support via Special Benefit. However, like millions of others in Australia, these regional workers have been unexpectedly and severely impacted by the pandemic-related job losses. As such, the amount of time someone has to work to meet the pathway requirement should be reduced to one year in recognition of the impact of COVID-19 and to provide a realistic incentive for people to work in affected areas and industries.
Concessions have been provided by the Government to SHEV holders during COVID-19 to account for the difficulties they may have meeting the locational requirements of the visa to achieve permanency during this time:
All SHEV holders (both current and former) seeking to meet the SHEV pathway requirements can count periods of time towards the pathway requirement if during a ‘concession period’ and while holding a SHEV, they:
access Special Benefit payments, or
work outside a SHEV regional area in an essential service.
These concessions enable SHEV holders to claim this time toward their pathway requirements even if they are not currently residing in regional area.
Home Affairs elaborated on these provisions:
These were part of a package of COVID concessions that went through as amendments to the migration regulations in September, I think. They picked up SHEV visa holders and also a number of other visa holders whose requirements on their visa to qualify for another visa involved them being in particular locations at particular points of time. What the amendments have done is introduce the COVID concession period which will allow time during the COVID period to not be counted against the visa holder where, because of COVID, they weren't able to meet some of those locational requirements. That applies to SHEV and it also applies to some other visas as well.
According to Home Affairs, the COVID-19 concessions benefit both SHEV holders who are genuinely pursuing the pathways to permanency by working in regional Australia, and visa holders who have chosen not to work or study in regional areas.
Depending on what people's individual pathways are some will benefit without necessarily having availed themselves of the existing opportunities. For others it may be the difference between getting a permanent visa—because they lost employment for a period of time during COVID and that in itself could've knocked them out, if you like, of qualifying, and this may give them the opportunity to qualify.
The RCOA conducted research which found that TPV and SHEV holders could constitute a valuable resource to fill workforce gaps that have emerged as a result of COVID-19:
Our research shows that if refugees on a SHEV or TPV are offered a more realistic pathway to permanency and family reunion there will be much greater take up of work in regional areas and other impacted industries. We've recently conducted a survey of SHEV holders, asking them about their response to working in a regional area due to the COVID pandemic, and over 80 per cent—81 per cent—of people indicated that they would move to a regional area a promise of a permanent visa after one year of work. We estimate that approximately 14,000 people on a SHEV or TPV would move to a regional area for work if given the right incentive.
At a public hearing, RCOA summarised these incentives:
In order to encourage refugees on a SHEV or TPV to help fill these labour shortages, there needs to be proper incentives and supports in place. People need security that they are able to remain in Australia and continue contributing to their local communities. They need to be able to settle with their families by their side and they need local communities who are willing and able to support them.
Home Affairs noted that both the SHEV and TPV holders had been successful in securing employment outcomes:
We do have very good employment outcomes for both TPV and SHEV holders. This year it obviously has turned around, but, as of the end of last year, only 13.6 per cent of SHEV holders were accessing benefits. In other words, another 87 percent were working. But they will go to where the work is.
Home Affairs noted the importance of employment opportunities being available, and the role of support services and access to networks in accessing employment:
…they will go to where the work is. In the event that the work is in metropolitan areas, often they do use access through community groups to get work, and those groups are particularly strong in metropolitan areas. So I think the number who’ve applied for the visa and the disconnect between that and those who we believe are located in the regions is largely driven by the ability to go and work in that region and also the support services available, the connection to community, language etc.
The Committee acknowledges that there is no legislative barrier to SHEV and TPV holders working in regional industries facing labour shortages. The Committee also acknowledges the concessions provided to assist visa holders who are unable to meet their locational requirements during COVID-19. The Committee also welcomes the recent announcement of unlimited free English classes under the Adult Migrant English Program.
However, the Committee heard evidence that SHEV and TPV holders were unlikely to take up opportunities in regional areas, particularly in agriculture and horticulture, without further incentives due to perceived uncertainty at the end of the process and the many practical barriers, including access to training and education.
The Committee acknowledges the views of the RCOA about difficulties SHEV holders face in accessing the existing pathways to permanency, particularly due to the expense involved in tertiary study. The Committee notes that advocates for SHEV and TPV holders suggest that people are not going to go to regional areas without some guarantee of permanency.
The Committee acknowledges that many of the concerns raised by advocates for SHEV and TPV holders are grounded in their real life experiences and genuinely held. Many of these issues, however, are outside the scope of this inquiry and require separate consideration by government.
The Committee notes the horticultural and agricultural labour shortage gripping the industry as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to maximise the number of people in Australia to fill the critical regional labour shortages, including Australian citizens, permanent residents and temporary migrants. The Committee also notes the wide range of skilled jobs in regional Australia that have not been filled because of the skills shortage.
The Committee therefore sees merit in the Government addressing the identified barriers and providing stronger incentives for SHEV and TPV holders to fill critical regional labour shortages.
Home Affairs provided evidence on some of the elements and pathway requirements for permanent visa applicants, including matters such as definitions of skills requirements, the length of time required in relevant work or study, English language requirements, age limits, and evidence and recognition of overseas qualifications and of overseas and local skills and work experience.
The Committee believes that one incentive could be to allow SHEV and TPV holders who have undertaken one year of work in regional industries facing critical labour shortages being eligible for government-subsidised VET training courses. These VET courses should be for occupations experiencing chronic shortages for at least a decade.
The Government should also provide greater certainty in the migration pathway to attract more SHEV and TPV holders to settle in regional Australia and help to fill critical labour shortages. The Committee did not receive sufficient evidence to make detailed recommendations regarding the adjustments that could be made to visa pathways to provide sufficient incentive while maintaining the integrity of the migration program, but the permanent visa requirement concessions discussed above should be carefully and seriously considered.
The Committee recommends that the Government consider additional concessions to SHEV and TPV holders who undertake at least one year of agricultural or horticultural work in a regional area, and are prepared to settle in a regional areas, such as:
Subsidised VET training courses for skilled occupations experiencing chronic skills shortages (of at least 10 years); and
Other incentives that assist SHEV and TPV holders to meet requirements under a range of available visas, including the skilled migration scheme.
Mr Julian Leeser MP