Young Australians would be the targets of a new ‘Have a Gap Year at Home’ campaign, developed to combat a shortage of backpacker workers in agriculture.
An interim report into the Working Holiday Maker program recommended that the government urgently develop and implement a ‘Have a Gap Year at Home’ campaign to attract young Australians, particularly the current cohort of Year 12s and university graduates, to undertake regional work.
It comes after the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) told the parliamentary committee overseeing an inquiry into the program that between 20 and 60 per cent of some farm workers are made up of people on the Working Holiday Maker visa.
But the number of people on the visa has fallen from 140,000 to 73,500 since Australia closed its borders in March, raising challenges for the agriculture sector due to its reliance on backpackers to harvest crops.
Another of the recommendations of the interim report includes allowing Australians on JobSeeker over the next 12 months to be able to retain payments while working low-paid agricultural and horticultural work.
The government would also provide a one-off payment for travel and accommodation expenses to help workers relocate for these jobs.
Furthermore, the committee recommended extending the Working Holiday Maker program’s Northern Territory provision for the next 12 months, allowing work in hospitality, tourism and other industries to apply in all regional, rural and remote areas.
The committee also recommended enabling Working Holiday Makers who have undertaken work in key industries in all peri-urban, regional, rural or remote areas, to count their work towards qualifying for a second- or third-year visa.
Additionally, it was recommended that government establish a hotline for Working Holiday Makers where they can access all the advice they need regarding their work rights, workplace exploitation concerns, accommodation and employment options in one place.
The Australian Hotels Association (AHA) and Tourism Accommodation Australia (TAA) welcomed the release of the interim report, but believe the inquiry highlighted the importance of backpackers as “a supplementary labour source”, particularly in regional areas of the country.
“We particularly welcome the report’s recommendation to extend the Northern Australia provision, which would allow Working Holiday Makers to work in regional hospitality venues in order to qualify for a second or third visa,” AHA national chief executive Stephen Ferguson said.
“We also applaud the recommendation that Working Holiday Makers be allowed to work for the same employer for more than six months if they are in a regional remote area of Australia, providing more certainty for visa holders and employers.”
Prior to the release of the interim report, the Australian Tourism Industry Council (ATIC) had called for the federal government to extend visas for all remaining backpackers in Australia for 12 months.
According to the organisation, backpackers generated $3.2 billion in tourism spending in 2019. But COVID-19 has seen backpacker numbers dramatically fall by more than half.
ATIC executive director Simon Westaway said with 70,000 backpackers still here the free-falling number of remaining backpackers on working holiday visas required an “urgent circuit breaker”.
“The absence of backpackers is being harshly felt through the dual loss of usual working holidaymaker spending and dwindling seasonal workers inside many tourism businesses and towns,” he said.
“Backpackers travel extensively through Australia taking up hard-to-fill roles across key regional industries, including tourism and hospitality, as well as areas of agriculture and horticulture.
“The current situation sees recovering regions unable to meet returning local visitor demand in many places where numbers of local businesses do not have enough workers to cater for them.”
Westaway said the rapid decline in backpacker numbers is proving detrimental to regional businesses and their efforts to recover from the impacts of COVID-19.
“Without urgent federal government intervention, despite their existing focus on the issue, we genuinely fear the Working Holiday Maker (WHM) Program will all but stop in its tracks by early 2021.” he said.
“This is because the response to COVID-19 has contributed to a hard-closed international border, tight caps on international arrivals and a high outflow from Australia of departing backpackers.
“ATIC believes Australia’s continual high-appeal to backpackers could easily be turned into a catalyst for future international visitor recovery and backs a fast-tracked pilot program for them.”
Westaway said ATIC had outlined to the Morrison government a multi-point plan to sustain and long-term retain the backpacker market and this closely aligned with key industry advocates.
Tourism Research Australia analysis showed backpackers pre-COVID generated 46 million visitor nights, spending $3.2 billion across all states and territories including with high regional dispersal.
Featured image source: iStock/xavierarnau