The Australian Council of Trade Unions has begun pushing a controversial new proposal that would see the WHM visa program’s optional second year scrapped.
Analysis from the Federal Government has already shown that the move would cause struggling regional towns to lose up to $360 million, while simultaneously sending home more than 35,000 backpackers currently working in Australia.
According to reports, the ACTU’s new policy is part of a broader attempt to dismantle the working holiday visa program. The powerful union body is said to be pressuring Bill Shorten to review the program, while also advocating for further work restrictions during the WHM visa’s first year.
The Opposition spokesperson, Shayne Neumann, has refused to rule out the ACTU’s plan, saying that in Labor’s view the number of temporary visa holders in Australia is “too high”.
The news has drawn condemnation from Australia’s agricultural business owners, with the National Farmers Federation (NFF) labelling the demands as “ill-considered, ill-conceived and smack of ‘dog-whistle’ politics”.
The general manager of the NFF, Ben Rogers, defended the need for the WHM program, saying that it is essential to many sectors of the agricultural industry.
“Australian workers simply don’t want, in sufficient volumes, to do farm work. Most Aussie farms are very small, family run businesses with low turnover and profit margins,” Rogers said.
“The entire sector would mobilise to voice its outrage and despair if the program was to be scrapped without adopting realistic alternatives. The response to the “backpacker tax” issue would pale in comparison.”
Rogers also criticised the ACTU’s stance on what he described as a “crippling issue”, saying that believing the problem can be solved by increasing wages is “dangerous” and “naive”.
The Minister for Agriculture, David Littleproud, also came to the WHM program’s defence, stressing the importance of temporary foreign workers as a labour source for Australian farmers.
“If this plan becomes a reality, then our fruit and vegetables won’t get to the city supermarkets – they’ll rot in the fields with no one to pick them,” he said.
“The ACTU doesn’t understand this because they don’t care or understand agriculture and the important role backpackers play. The Coalition is working to get more workers for farms, not less. We’re extending backpacker visas from two to three years, not cutting them to one.”
The CEO of Absolute Immigration, Jamie Lingham, was also highly critical of the ACTU’s proposed plan, predicting that it would be a catastrophe for regional areas.
“Dismantling the second year program of the Working Holiday visa would be a disaster for regional and remote areas that struggle to attract and retain local Australian Citizens and permanent visa holders,” Lingham said.
“This is yet another example of the Unions being out of touch with the reality, while looking to influence a workforce that does not have the number of locals necessary to undertake the required work. All that we will see is greater automation—or closure of businesses—with increasing importation of produce from overseas. For a nation that is based on immigration, the latest Union ‘thought bubble’ feels more like a ‘brain fade’.”
“Whilst we strongly support the protection of workers and their rights, as well as stopping exploitation of foreign workers, all Australians (including the ACTU) need to recognise the vital role that migrants and working holiday visa holders play in our long-term sustainability and success,” he said.
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