Relaxed visas would help bolster farm work

Finbar O'Mallon
Farmers are struggling to recruit backpackers to work on their properties amid the coronavirus

Farmers struggling to pick crops would need to have visa regulations around backpackers relaxed if they hope to have the working tourists return.

There has been a 20 per cent drop in the number of working holiday visa applicants, the Department of Home Affairs has told a parliamentary inquiry.

But department official Michael Willard says numbers for the program popular with overseas backpackers had already been stagnating.

"And as you'd expect since the travel bans and the COVID impact worldwide, we've seen a drop-off in applications," Mr Willard said on Friday.

The inquiry is looking into northern Australia, with senators raising concerns the coronavirus fallout will see farms struggling.

Mr Willard said the department had seen a small drop, around five per cent, in the number of employer-sponsored visas (a type of skilled workers visa).

There had also been a 10 per cent drop off in applicants for seasonal work and the Pacific labour scheme.

With the latter, the department had seen solid growth since 2017-18 until the coronavirus pandemic hit, Mr Willard said.

The department had also allowed 7500 temporary visa holders working in seasonal agriculture work to stay longer.

He said the department had allowed extended stays after getting feedback from farmers.

Mr Willard said getting backpackers to help out on regional farms struggling to attract workers would need regulatory changes.

Eligibility for work in other industries would also have to be expanded to help boost the workforce in less-popular regional areas for tourists.

"There is a capacity to adjust those in response to circumstance that may occur in the future," he said.

In the second half of 2019, there were 85,500 working holidaymakers in Australia, with about 19,000 granted a second visa.