Farmers in Northern Territory left out of latest skilled migrant worker scheme despite high hopes
David and Ruth Cormack in happier times; now they fear they’ll have to close their melon farm. (Suplpied: David Cormack)
Northern Territory melon farmer David Cormack will hold out for one final growing season before he locks the farm gate for the final time and gives up on his life’s work.
He said it was due to an inability to attract and retain staff in the Top End.
Every year, Mr Cormack’s situation has worsened, he said, as he found himself hiring “from the bottom of the barrel”: workers who were unskilled, inexperienced, or suspected drug addicts.
He laid the blame at the feet of Australia’s visa system.
“Our situation is just so appalling, that you just get someone taught and they’re gone,” Mr Cormack said.
“It’s got to the point now that we are reducing our production for this year, and if it gets any worse we will cease to function as a melon farm.”
The Northern Territory Government says the dwindling population and widespread skills shortage would be improved by a new, second five-year migration program, the Designated Area Migration Agreement (DAMA II).
Farmer David Cormack says it is too difficult to get workers to help on his melon farm. (Supplied: Tyne McConnon)
The program, and agreement between the NT and Federal governments, came into effect on January 1, and means that now an additional 36 occupations are available to overseas nationals in the jurisdiction.
That brings to 117 the number of shortage occupations where employers can recruit skilled migrants if they are unable to fill positions locally, Chief Minister Michael Gunner said in a statement on Wednesday.
Under the program, employers will have to first conduct labour market testing in a bid to hire Australian workers before any overseas workers can be recruited.
The program will assist Territory employers to retain staff for five to seven years, and for migrants to be able to fast-track their applications for permanent residency after three years working in Australia.
New scheme lets down agriculture sector: migration agent
But while the new scheme was largely a trifecta win for employers, migrants, and the NT, its biggest downfall was in the agriculture sector, one migration agent said.
“In general, the DAMA program focuses on the tourism and hospitality industry, and now DAMA II has a broader list to include workers who are less skilled,” said Manuela Seiberth, director of private migration agency Northern Immigration.
“In my opinion, there could be more occupations [permitted], especially in the agricultural sector, as NT farmers have expressed their difficulties in attracting and retaining workers.
“So far on the DAMA list, there are farm occupations such as fruit and vegetable grower, which sounds like a low-skilled occupation but actually requires people to have a university degree.
“But famers mainly need low-skilled workers.”
Manuela Seiberth says more agricultural jobs should be included in the scheme. (Supplied: Manuela Seiberth)
Mr Cormack said he was at his wits’ end with his treatment by the NT Government and the federal Northern Development Minister, Matt Canavan.
He said he had arranged for multiple meetings with both, only to be shuffled around, ignored, and walked away from when he asked Mr Canavan why the plan for an agricultural visa was dropped at the last minute.
The Northern Territory Government and Minister Canavan have been contacted for comment.
Giving skilled migrants a reason to stay in the NT
Mr Gunner said that the possibility of gaining permanent residency gave skilled migrants a big incentive to move to the NT and stay for the long term.
“Every Territorian benefits when we attract more people,” he said.
“More people means more jobs and a stronger economy, which means better schools, better hospitals and more police.”
He said the Territory had “a long and proud history of migration of overseas nationals and they have been a key contributor to economic growth, population growth and social diversity”, which the new agreement would help continue.
DAMA II was an example of the Federal Government using migration to stimulate certain parts of the country, said David Coleman, federal Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs.
“Our first priority is always to fill jobs with Australians, but the immigration system can play an important role in helping to address regional skills gaps,” he said in a statement.
Push to support seasonal workers’ arrangement
But after so many losses as a business owner, Mr Cormack said there was hope that DAMA II could be the answer to his problems, and those of many other NT farmers.
“I really would like them to allow us to bring suitable people with the necessary skills to be able to come in on a yearly basis to do our season,” he said.
“It’s a good opportunity for them; they’re earning money, gaining skills, and improving their English by being here.”
Migration experts said it was up to the NT Government to work out a way to include jobs such as farm hands on the DAMA II scheme.
They said there was scope for the NT to support a seasonal workers’ arrangement and take it to the Federal Government, which ultimately approves or denies DAMA II visa applications on a case-by-case basis.
Migrants on DAMA II would still need to be paid the minimum salary rate of $53,900, but there was the possibility the scheme could be tailored to suit seasonal work.
The NT Country Liberals opposition welcomed the announcement of DAMA II.
“It is wonderful to see this is finally coming to fruition, as well as our suggestion for a possible subsidisation of HECs fees connected to those who secure their first job on graduation in the Northern Territory,” said Opposition Leader Gary Higgins in a statement.
He said he would continue to lobby Canberra “for additional considerations including the possibility of tax breaks and increasing remote and regional allowances and further decentralisation of appropriate Australian Public Service employees”.
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