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JOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON MIGRATION
Working holiday visas
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JOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON MIGRATION
Working holiday visas
ACTING CHAIR (Senator McKiernan)
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Table Of ContentsPrevious Fragment
JOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON MIGRATION
(JOINT-Monday, 16 December 1996)
- Committee front matter
- Committee witnesses
- Committee witnesses
- Committee witnesses
- Committee witnesses
ACTING CHAIR (Senator McKiernan)
- Committee witnesses
- Committee witnesses
- Committee witnesses
- Committee witnesses
ACTING CHAIR (Senator McKiernan)
Content WindowJOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON MIGRATION - 16/12/1996 - Working holiday visas
ACTING CHAIR (Senator McKiernan) —Welcome. Thank you for coming to Melbourne to give evidence. We are appreciative of the fact that you have travelled some distance to be with us and assist the committee in the inquiry. I also thank you for the submission that you earlier supplied to the committee. We have, as you would be aware, published the submission. It is now part of the public discussion on the reference that is before the committee. I invite you now to speak briefly to the submission.
I will make a cautionary warning now that five o'clock is our deadline--there are planes to catch and we do not have the flexibility that we perhaps had earlier today where we allowed people to go over time, so brevity might help, but feel free to elaborate wherever you feel the need to elaborate on matters.
Ms Beelen —Thank you for the opportunity to appear before this inquiry into working holiday visas. The submission provided to you was prepared jointly by the Riverina Area Consultative Committee, the Riverina Regional Development Board, MIA Council of Horticultural Associations, Riverina Regional Tourism and officers for the Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs--which in itself reflects the importance of the issues being considered by this inquiry. There were a number of points raised in our submission and I would like to emphasise a few of those today in this opening statement.
The Riverina region relies largely on an agricultural base for its economic wellbeing. The area produces grapes, citrus, apples, cherries, rice, asparagus and other fruit and vegetables. With that production comes a need for a significant number of seasonal workers during harvest periods. Substantial growth is expected to occur in a number of crop production areas and, as a result, the need for seasonal labour will increase in a relatively short space of time.
With low unemployment rates in a number of centres in the Riverina, the local labour market has been, and will continue to be, unable to meet the demand for pickers. Given the short-term nature of the work it has proven difficult to get people to relocate to and work in the region. Backpackers have played a vital role in supplementing the available pool of labour. The itinerant lifestyle, which includes short periods of work and travel, suits the requirements of growers for seasonal labour.
Through the MIA Council of Horticultural Associations, growers have acknowledged the important role backpackers play in their industry by establishing a hostel in Griffith. Riverina Regional Tourism has also been very proactive in encouraging backpackers to travel to the region through the production and distribution of promotional material.
In our submission we have asked that consideration be given to the inclusion of a statement in the working holiday visa program that acknowledges the important role backpackers play in the labour market, particularly in relation to seasonal work. Backpackers have added to the already rich cultural diversity enjoyed by residents of the Riverina, and their presence has been a positive one for our community--both culturally and in economic terms through tourism and the support of local businesses.
In our submission we ask that consideration be given to raising the age limit to 30 to allow for more mature people to have access to work-assisted travel within Australia. Mature workers are highly regarded by growers and they offer an additional cultural perspective to the broader community.
We believe that retaining a cap on working holiday visas may have a detrimental effect on the supply of labour for harvests and, in turn, this may negatively impact on the production capability of the region. However, we acknowledge that there may be a need to protect some labour markets where there are high levels of unemployment. It would not be responsible to create a situation where the number of job opportunities available for local job seekers were substantially decreased.
If backpackers were competing for jobs against local job seekers, then some protection mechanism may be required. As suggested in our submission, perhaps backpackers could work only within nominated industries or perhaps some industries could be excluded. It is unavoidable that a balance be found to meet the conflicting needs of communities with high unemployment against those experiencing acute labour shortages. We do not believe there would necessarily be a large increase in the number of people applying for working holiday visas if no cap were to exist. However, if there were to be a substantial increase in applications, then consideration would have to be given to the possible impact on the labour market. A mechanism would need to be in place to allow for a quick response to such a situation.
There will always be some difficulties in assessing and enforcing
compliance with visa conditions. For example, some visitors do work without
the necessary approval and a level of non-compliance does exist in a number
of visa categories. Steps may be taken to minimise such non-compliance but
we offer no particular expertise in defining those possible steps. Others
with more direct experience in such matters will no doubt have made
recommendations through this inquiry. In our submission we support the
proposition that the program be expanded through reciprocal arrangements
with other countries. Given the positive experiences in our region we would
welcome the prospect of a more diverse group of visitors and also the
increased opportunity for Australians to travel and work in other countries.
Again, we thank you for the opportunity to present our views today and we
welcome any questions you may have.
ACTING CHAIR —Do any of the other members want to make any contributions at this time? Could I, at the very beginning of the questioning, establish some parameters? Your submission addresses backpackers; we are actually tasked with inquiring into the working holiday-maker visa, which is a component part of the backpacker tourist market. I would like to confine the dialogue to the working holiday-maker side of things rather than talking about the whole backpacker syndrome.
Ms Beelen —I might clarify that I suppose we use that as a colloquial term. We do understand that it applies to working holiday visa applicants.
ACTING CHAIR —Okay. Can you tell me the numbers of working holiday-maker people that your area would need each year to fulfil the requirement of the harvesting season?
Mr Maruskanic —It varies depending on the season and the size of the crop but we would estimate that it is probably between 4,000 and 8,000 vacancies per year. We obviously do not need 8,000 people every year because people go on from job to job, but we think we need a labour force of probably about 4,000 in a good year; probably in a bad year 2,000 to 2,500.
ACTING CHAIR —What proportion would need to be backpackers or working holiday-makers?
Mr Maruskanic —We have no idea how many working holiday-makers there are. We have had a rough estimate, I suppose. It is purely a `guesstimate'. We think there are probably about 500 in the MIA through a season.
—I would agree with that. We have a backpackers' working
hostel in Griffith and all the people staying in the hostel are
international travellers with working visas. There were 250 people in that
hostel last season. So we estimate that there would be, in addition to those
numbers in the hostel, more backpackers who go straight from the cities to
ACTING CHAIR —You say all the people in that hostel would be working holiday-makers with working holiday-maker visas?
Mr Hickey —That is correct.
ACTING CHAIR —How do you know?
Mr Hickey —It is a requirement--a policy of the hostel--that international travellers who are staying at the hostel have to work and to work they need a working holiday-maker visa.
ACTING CHAIR —What is the name of this hostel?
Mr Hickey —It is the Griffith International Hostel.
ACTING CHAIR —It is an unusual requirement because the working holiday-maker visa part of the backpacker market is supposed to be only 15 per cent; I would imagine a hostel like that would be restricting the clientele it could attract.
Mr Hickey —The major attraction to WHMs is the working aspect in the region. There is really not a lot of other reasons to come to Griffith, except to work.
ACTING CHAIR —That is not what I heard!
Mr Hickey —The demand for accommodation places in the hostel is limited during the peak harvest months and therefore the policy of the hostel is to restrict access to beds to working holiday-makers.
ACTING CHAIR —Okay, that last part probably makes some sense. You mentioned that the age limit is a problem, that it should be 30, but it is 30. With the countries that we have reciprocal arrangements with it is 30.
Mr Hickey —My understanding is that anybody between the ages of 26 and 30 must demonstrate that they would be of benefit to Australia by accepting--
ACTING CHAIR —Same as for the 18-year-olds.
Mr Hickey —That is right. In our submission we suggested that that restriction between 26 and 30 be removed.
—There is an age limit restriction obviously on the
visa class. For those countries we have got reciprocal arrangements with,
30-year-olds and 29-year-olds can apply and be granted visas. For those
countries we do not have reciprocal arrangements with, the restriction is
back to 25. Is that where the problem is?
Mr Hickey —If that is the case, in our understanding of how the program works then that is not a problem. But in our understanding of the program there is restriction for some people applying for visas that they have to demonstrate some special circumstances if they are between the ages of 26 and 30.
ACTING CHAIR —The other area that I was interested in in your submission--your pages are not numbered, it is under B. It talked about an expanded philosophy for the scheme. What is your understanding of what the scheme is about now? Why do you think Australia has in place a system for working holiday maker visas?
Mrs Wilkinson —There seems in much of the guidelines for working holiday visas to be a cultural emphasis, that we share cultures and that diversity is useful for both people in our own country as well as people that might like to take advantage of reciprocal arrangements. I guess in our submission we are asking that consideration be given to the economic factors, in that working holiday visas and working holiday-makers are imperative in order for our region to be able to get our harvest in within a very time-critical time span, and we are saying that we would like more emphasis to be placed on the economic benefits that backpackers bring to a region like ours, where there is a skill shortage and low unemployment rates in comparison to the state and national figures, and the demand there is really based on the economic advantage that backpackers and working holiday makers bring to our region.
ACTING CHAIR —But the working holiday-maker visa scheme is essentially a tourism orientated scheme. Would regions such as yours not be better looking at a labour market scheme to resolve the labour market problems rather than being reliant on something that is tourism driven?
Mrs Wilkinson —We have looked at those sorts of things in the past. We had a program that we undertook that was in relation to skill shortages and tried to attract people to move to our region on a permanent basis and targeted some of the areas that had high levels of unemployment. That had limited success, basically due to some factors with people reluctant to move families, housing costs, people basically unwilling to resettle to regional areas if they have established contacts in larger centres. Those factors seems to be larger when you come to asking people to come to our region on a temporary basis for periods of normally less than three months, where those sorts of issues seem to recur. For backpackers or for working holiday-makers it is an ideal situation. They are flexible in the way that they can operate and they are usually only interested in staying for a short time anyway.
ACTING CHAIR —Do you actively recruit people overseas?
—No. We have done some advertising in some
backpacking magazines. That is about the extent of it.
Mrs Wilkinson —Riverina Regional Tourism has begun a campaign to attract people to come further west, not stay on the east coast, to look at working holidays. That campaign is just in its early stages now. It is targeting the backpacker magazines and the youth hostels that are based in the city.
Ms Beelen —I might add that we have explored, through the regional assistance migration scheme, some opportunity to attract skilled labour into our area from overseas, using a different method than working holiday visas. The difficulty with that is that they are basically permanent jobs and are sponsored, and it has a different framework. What we have said in supporting the point about expanding the underlying aim of the working holiday visa program is that, yes, the basis is for cultural exchange and tourism, but an impact has been the significance of those people in our labour market. So we either say that, within that program, there is that significance or, as you have suggested, there is another program that provides that statement of significance. But that is a government decision as to whether or not we have a program that exists to encourage labour for specific reasons.
ACTING CHAIR —Working is supposedly only incidental to the program. But you would be seeing the working holiday-maker visa scheme as being a labour market scheme?
Mr Maruskanic —In our region it is, because they only come to our region to work; they do not come down to look at mountains or smoke dope. There is only one reason to come.
ACTING CHAIR —You said that!
Mr Maruskanic —That is the only reason they come to the Riverina, basically; if they do not like sampling a few nice bottles of wine, it is to pick the grapes that go in them.
ACTING CHAIR —Or eat fresh fruit.
Mr Maruskanic —Or eat fresh fruit.
Ms Beelen —The tourism industry is actually linked to the work that they come to do. They are not separate. A lot of the tourism of the Riverina is the produce that we make, so that is linked with the work that they come and do. For us, it is all caught up together.
Mr KERR —If I could follow up that issue, in the earlier discussion with the northern Victorian fruit-growers they mentioned the development of a harvest trail idea. It seems to me that most of us would have absolutely no trouble at all about working holiday-makers topping up whatever was a natural industry demand. But we would not want the other side of that to be that you did not develop things like a harvest trail because it is so easy to find backpackers or people like that to give you a reprieve from having to develop an industry base that can use the pool of unemployed we have ourselves.
We are certainly going to have to be a bit cautious about increasing the
number of working holiday visas, against a background where the industry
might be thought not to be putting enough effort into developing that kind
of response so that it can be attractive to our own unemployed. I wonder
what, if anything, you are doing to fit into the idea that the Northern
Victorian Fruitgrowers Association had of developing a year-on-year
harvesting trail so that it is attractive for people to spend a year and
save some money, and see their own country as well?
Ms Beelen —What we have done to date is that we have had some discussions, given that the CES is going to change its role next year. To date we have depended quite a lot on the CES network to access unemployed people from other areas to come and do some of the harvest work. There are numbers of promotional pamphlets and material that CES offices have, as well as the system of touch screens, to actually give information to people about the opportunities to come and do seasonal work.
Patricia alluded earlier to a project that we undertook to attract skilled labour to our region, which was another concept, but what we found when we went to talk to people in Victoria about relocating was that we targeted young people as well as other age groups. But the young people's concerns were about the dislocation from family and the uncertainty of what the social aspects of that area were like. Would they fit in? Would they be accepted? Would they be able to work and to have some social life there that was supportive and not get themselves into more trouble than they probably thought they could handle, particularly the younger ones? Those sorts of things concerned them.
We found it difficult enough to convince, for example, careers advisers in schools to encourage young people to look at alternative types of occupations. It is very difficult to get them to look at trades let alone encourage an occupation that has a short span and also one that not necessarily has a career path. We had some resistance there. But one of the issues that the ACC has been looking at is an approach to the minister, Senator Vanstone, about how in the future, given the CES's role will change, we are going to be able to cope with our harvest. This may well be one of the issues that we will canvass with her. What sort of support can we get from the growers, from the government and from other organisations to look at a scheme to encourage other people to come from within Australia to take on harvest work would be an issue we would raise with her. Obviously, we would be very supportive of that.
—I am sure it is true that there would be very few people
who would want to make a lifetime career out of this but I would have
thought it would be very attractive for a lot of people to spend one or two
years, if they cannot find a job anywhere else, earning some money and
saving it. If there is a harvest trail you can genuinely follow then it
could be developed. That would decrease dependency on the need to use this
as a labour market program and have it genuinely for part-time workers. If
there are some spare jobs on top of that then people can pick them up
because there is a bit of resistance amongst some of us to turn what was
meant to be a holiday program into a labour market program because it was
not what it was designed for.
Ms Beelen —I do not think we want it turned into that but we think that there be some acknowledgment that that is a factor rather than for that to take it over. We appreciate that in other areas what our experience is is very different to what they are experiencing. For us it is part of it whereas for others it is not a significant part. I suppose we do not want it to be reformed to be something else but we hope there is some acknowledgment that in some places this is an important factor in our labour market.
Senator TIERNEY —Can I turn to the capping of the working holiday scheme. You seem to be arguing that there would not be a great increase in numbers anyway if this was not capped. What do you base that on?
Mr Hickey —The harvest demands varying numbers of people each year as the crop varies. We believe that a cap, whether it be 45,000, 50,000 or 60,000, simply will not work. Caps are not relevant in terms of our demands for labour simply because we have a requirement for a total labour force which is made up of 10 per cent of people on the working holiday maker program. We simply do not think that a cap is really going to be of any use in terms of our demands for labour.
Senator TIERNEY —Do you think it will be a hindrance to what you are trying to do, given the difficulty of perhaps getting the Australian long-term unemployed to pick up this sort of work?
Mr Maruskanic —We are getting into the argument of making this sort of work attractive to the long-term unemployed, in this discussion. Certainly, the unemployed are targeted. They are targeted by every horticultural region that needs labour of this sort, in the fruit picking industry in Shepparton, Mildura, Griffith and Leeton. We do target the unemployed. In the Riverina, in particular, we have a very low unemployment rate: we have very low numbers of people who are actually unemployed. Once we have targeted that sector of the labour market and that is exhausted, then we must look to other sectors of the labour market to attract them into the area.
Senator TIERNEY —What sort of breakdown do you have of the work force that comes in to do the picking: people on the working holiday scheme, Australians who are local and Australians who are itinerants, coming in from other areas? What is the balance between those three groups?
—It is a mad guess, but the MIA has probably 750
unemployed people. That varies, depending on the time of the year: there are
up to 1,000 people who are unemployed. We guess there are about 500
backpackers who come through there annually, and the rest of the labour is
sourced from outside the area. Whether they are working or otherwise
unemployed, we do not know. There are a lot of groups that come there en
masse. The Turkish population comes there from November through to the end
of January to pick onions. That is a contract type of thing. The community
themselves organise it.
Senator TIERNEY —Where do they come from?
Mr Maruskanic —They come out of Auburn in Sydney, and from Melbourne. They specialise in picking onions. There would be 500 or 600 of those people. As for how many unemployed people come to Griffith, we have got no way of really knowing. My best guess is probably a couple of hundred. That is what our systems can tell us, but there are some huge inefficiencies there as well, so it could easily be a lot higher.
Senator TIERNEY —You have made the statement that working holiday-makers have a positive impact on the Riverina community. I assume you mean an impact apart from their obvious economic impact. Can anyone expand on that? What sort of an impact does it have on the local community, apart from generating jobs, income and expenditure?
Ms Beelen —I suppose we are at an advantage in the Riverina in that we have a fairly culturally diverse society to start with. As you can imagine, in Griffith we have got a large Italian, Indian, Asian, Tongan and Fijian community. When we have backpackers in town, they mix quite easily because there are numbers of different ethnic groups there. They seem to mix well and the hostel works well because they have contact with each other and they move easily into our community. I am not sure that I can define exactly why that happens, particularly in our area; but it seems to happen that those people are actually quite active in making friendships and contacts in our areas. That has worked well, because they have made friendships, and people from our community have gone to visit their country. So there has been a lot of cultural interaction. Maybe it is the size of the area that makes it easier for that to happen: I am not quite sure, but it just seems to happen in our area.
Mrs Wilkinson —Anecdotally, the community attitude towards backpackers is very positive. People welcome them and they see them as a way of being able to get their harvest off quickly and efficiently. There is no resentment about people coming into a town or a region to work on a harvest, because they are seen as a positive thing for our economy and for the community in general.
Senator TIERNEY —Do you ever have years when there are actual shortages of labour in relation to the crops and you cannot get enough people?
—Most years--we have actually had a year when the
fruit was not picked. There is normally a shortage of labour.
Ms Beelen —For example, in the Griffith area there is an unemployment rate of about 3.9 per cent, which is very low. That means we are struggling in a number of areas to find workers, whether they be skilled, semi-skilled or just for the harvest.
Senator TIERNEY —Why don't the 3.9 per cent go out to work if there is work there to be done, and you folk cannot find enough workers anyway?
Mr Maruskanic —I expect that the government would be prepared to accept a figure of 5 per cent as being full employment. Some of those among the 3.9 per cent are very long term unemployed people; some have drug and alcohol problems.
Senator TIERNEY —It is getting down to the unemployable.
Mr Maruskanic —I would not say that; I could not say that but--
Senator TIERNEY —I mean particularly for that sort of very tough work for long periods of time.
Senator TROETH —Have you put your special visa issue to any government departments?
Mr Maruskanic —I do not think so.
Mr Hickey —I have written on behalf of industry to the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs.
Senator TROETH —Right.
Mr Hickey —About a specific industry working visa.
Senator TROETH —Have you had any response?
Mr Hickey —Not particularly; no.
Senator TROETH —Not at all?
Mr Hickey —No.
Senator TIERNEY —When did you write?
—It would have been May this year.
Senator McKIERNAN —That is seven months. As that has now been mentioned here, hopefully somebody will pass it on and we will see if we can get a response. I would be interested in seeing that response myself.
Senator TROETH —Yes, if you could let the committee have a copy of the letter, we would certainly chase that up. When a working holiday-maker arrives in the district, how does that person learn of what jobs are available? How do you circulate job vacancies?
Mr Hickey —A backpacker arrives in Griffith on the bus--say, at 2 o'clock in the morning--and is taken over to the hostel and lodged there. In the morning, the hostel manager will liaise with the newly arrived backpacker, book that person into the place and also tell that person about what work opportunities are available. If the hostel manager is not able to refer the person to any jobs, usually the person will be referred to the local CES office to look for other jobs. My role, which is a new one in the area, has come into that process so I will also liaise with backpackers. I will point them in the direction of a job wherever that may be. It might be towards the hostel, the CES or the direction of any contacts I might have in the industry.
Mr Maruskanic —We have strong links with the backpacking hostels in Sydney. We try to control the flow of people to Griffith because it is pointless for them to go to that area if there is no work for them.
Senator TROETH —And how helpful is the CES, or whatever agency it is to become?
Mr Hickey —Very helpful. The CES is the central employment agency for the whole area, indeed for the country. So the coordination of the harvest lot of vacancies is done through the CES, with the hostel. In a very small way, what I do is adding to those available services.
Senator TROETH —If backpackers use the services of the CES to some degree, is there any resentment locally that non-residents are using the time of the CES?
Mr Maruskanic —No, not that I am aware of.
Senator TROETH —I guess that, if unemployment is not such an issue in your area, that would not be a problem. It does seem to be so in other areas. Do employers in the region check if people seeking employment have the right to work? That is, do they check that they have working visas?
—The growers do not see themselves as having a policing
role. They do not really feel that they should be checking the information
that each person presents to them. If a grower does ask, there are no
guarantees that the response is going to be correct anyway, simply because
of the nature of the broad spectrum of people that growers are employing.
They simply cannot rely 100 per cent on the information that they are
receiving from people. But the hostel does play a part in looking at working
Senator TROETH —So somewhere along the line there is a check by someone in most cases of whether the person concerned has a working visa?
Mr Hickey —I would say that, honestly, a lot of growers probably would not check. They are too interested in getting the labour into the area, onto their farms, and having their crops picked. They do not see themselves as having the role of checking working visas.
Senator TROETH —Going back to the stage where people get off the bus--and you said that they went to the hostel which only takes those who want to work--does the hostel owner check the visas?
Mr Hickey —The hostel sees itself as a working hostel and it does want to comply with the regulations and legislation, so it does carry out a check of working visas. Indeed, I have had some people come to me looking for work who have been refused access to the hostel because of a lack of a working visa.
Senator TROETH —What about if the hostel is full and a potential worker arrives in Griffith? How would that person go about finding accommodation, and finding work the next day?
Mr Hickey —Firstly, a backpacker arriving in Griffith and coming across a full hostel would not be a very common occurrence. They can be accommodated in some way at the hostel, usually through turnover in people staying. However, we would go to efforts to try and accommodate them on farms or, if they have got camping equipment, at local caravan parks.
Mr Maruskanic —The hostel tries to move people through, but once someone is established on a farm people have been encouraged to move out onto the farm.
Senator TROETH —What about the payment of wages? Have there been any instances that you would know of, of employers offering under-award wages, or are there reasonably regular award payments?
Mr Maruskanic —Unfortunately, the union is not very active at all in the Riverina.
Senator TROETH —They are not, or they are?
Mr Maruskanic —They are not. Pay rates seem to be set by negotiation between the worker and the employer. There is only one industry that publishes a set of picking rates and it is the wine grape industry. The horticultural council, I think, is moving next year to have a fixed price for orange picking.
We have had a little trouble in the past with some of the vegetable
industries but, normally, a short supply of labour forces the price up
anyway. So that would be a problem only if there were a huge oversupply of
labour. I have been there for about 12 years and I have not seen it happen
yet. It could be there now. It gives the people bargaining power, basically.
Mr Hickey —Tony has highlighted the minimum picking rate for citrus. There have been a lot of complaints about citrus picking rates and, especially, orange picking in the MIA. The industry is very concerned about how that looks, and about growers underpaying--and I am not talking about underpaying just backpackers; I am talking about underpaying everybody.
Senator TROETH —Yes, I understand that.
Mr Hickey —Incidents of that kind are not common, but it still does not help the promotion and the image of the MIA as a fruit-picking destination. This year we have initiated a minimum picking rate for citrus. It is basically a promotional tool promoted as a safeguard, or a safety net for people who are not familiar with picking and working conditions in the area. As Tony also said, because of the demand and supply nature and the way the prices are driven--and picking rates are driven--if there is a minimum rate set for any commodity, the actual rate of picking is generally much higher than that.
Senator TROETH —Could you give us a figure for, say, an average day of picking vegetables and citrus? What would that be? What does it depend on--the amount that is picked?
Mr Maruskanic —It is all piece rates. Very few hourly rates are paid. With wine grapes, for the average picker I think they quoted a figure of about $100 to $120 a day. Obviously, someone who has never picked before will not pick anywhere near that within their first or possibly second week. Professional pickers can get up to $300 a day picking wine grapes. I am not sure what the citrus prices are this year, but I think they are paying about $40 to $45 a tonne, sometimes higher, depending on the size of the trees. I do not know what the average picker would pick there--possibly $90 or $100 a day.
Mr Hickey —It is around $80 a day for an average picker. People who are novices at the job obviously will not get that, as the previous organisation pointed out. It does take a novice picker a while to work up to the technique and the fitness level involved. But it is possible for an average person with fitness, enthusiasm and drive to earn that sort of money a day--and well in excess of that if they really dedicated themselves to it.
—Have you had many instances in the region of
backpackers arriving in Griffith, say, without adequate funds, not being
able to find work and having to rely on community organisations for support?
Or do they move on to other areas if they can?
Mr Hickey —I have actually interviewed the welfare organisations in Griffith about that. There really is not a problem with overseas travellers; it is more Australians coming from the metropolitan areas and really not being fully aware of the work opportunities in the area. Those are the people that are a drain on the resources of the welfare organisations.
Mrs Wilkinson —Much of the material about where the picking is at particular times of the year is advertised in things like backpacker magazines, Greyhound bus terminals, train stations--those sorts of central places--so they can see where the picking is. There is also a proviso at the bottom of those advertisements that says, `Contact your local CES and have them ring ahead before you make the trip to where the picking is.'
Senator TROETH —Thanks.
Ms GAMBARO —In your submission you have advocated a flat tax rate of 15 per cent, that it should be in line with the rate of tax on seasonal workers. You have also said it would reduce disputes and problems for employers. Could you expand on that? Are there many cases where employers have had extreme problems with the taxman?
Ms Beelen —I don't think we said anything on tax--
Ms GAMBARO —My apologies.
ACTING CHAIR —Have you any comment on what Ms Gambaro has asked, though? I know it is not directly in your submission, but she has raised the issue of tax.
Ms GAMBARO —I would not mind raising it with you. Is it something that you feel we should consider?
Mr Hickey —I could comment on that.
Ms GAMBARO —And does it cause confusion?
—There is confusion amongst growers as to what rate of
tax they should pay. It is my job to try and inform growers of what the law
requires. However, there still is some confusion in the industry as to what
rate of tax growers should be taking out of the wages of working
holiday-makers. I believe some of that confusion would be removed and the
competitiveness of people with working holiday-maker visas would be improved
if there was a flat rate of tax for all workers, and that would be much
fairer for all concerned. The area does have a job on its hands in
attracting people away from the coast, away from the sunny beaches and more
attractive coastal areas. We are trying to attract people out to the country
areas. If they are told that they are going to be taxed another 15 per cent
on top of Australians, that really is not a great incentive to try and get
people out into the area and pick.
ACTING CHAIR —Regarding the MIA Council of Horticultural Associations, what does MIA stand for?
Mr Hickey —The Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area.
ACTING CHAIR —And the MIA Council of Horticultural Associations owns the Griffith International Backpackers Hostel?
Mr Hickey —The backpackers hostel was established in early 1995 by the horticultural council. However, it was sold to the local Griffith skillshare as an ongoing concern. Running a backpackers hostel was not in the line of business of what the organisation is there for. However, it saw a need to create an additional pool of labour for the area and then handed the administration and the ownership of that business organisation over to a local community group.
ACTING CHAIR —Is skillshare still operating in Griffith?
Mr Hickey —Yes, it is.
ACTING CHAIR —It has changed in some areas. When is your picking season? How many seasons are there?
Mr Maruskanic —You can pick fruit in Griffith for almost 10 months of the year. The biggest demands, I think, would be from November to December and late February to early April. In July and August there is a shorter season picking navel oranges. Valencia oranges are picked most of the year round, basically. Probably the November-December period is the heaviest.
ACTING CHAIR —So you have a consistent year-round demand for labour and for working holiday-makers?
Mr Maruskanic —Yes. May-June is probably the only time when there is not much happening and it does slacken off a bit during January. But for the rest of the year there is some form of work. Demand varies from a couple of hundred, maybe, through to thousands.
—Over a 12-month period, you mentioned a figure of
500 working holiday-maker visa holders previously. Is that over the whole of
Mr Maruskanic —Yes.
ACTING CHAIR —So at any given time you might have 100 working holiday-maker visa people?
Mr Maruskanic —If that, I think.
Mr Hickey —Working on the basis of the throughput from the hostel, it is a 74-bed hostel. During the peak harvest period, which is the February-March grape harvest, it is full and it is turning over more people out to farms as they come in from the cities--through the hostel and out to the farms. So it is quite possible there would be more at any one time--more than 100.
ACTING CHAIR —I think it is probably more than quite possible, it would be very likely.
Mr Hickey —Oh yes, most likely.
ACTING CHAIR —A figure of 500 over the year probably would be over the 1,000 mark, would it not, rather than 500?
Mr Maruskanic —I do not know. Peak demand is probably only for three or four months of the year. I think the rest of the year the hostel can be empty at some stages or almost empty.
Mr Hickey —Yes.
ACTING CHAIR —The other comment made was about policing the visas and whether people have the right to work or not and the employers not seeing that as being their responsibility. Is it their responsibility?
Mr Hickey —That is a matter of what the legislation says. I am not really familiar with the employer's role in ensuring that the person they are employing has a right to be employed by them. But the fact remains that growers do not see themselves in that role and they generally will not check that.
ACTING CHAIR —But they do not see themselves as being tax collectors either but the legislation says that they have to collect the tax and they do collect the tax. What we want and what we are obliged to do are sometimes different things, but we still have to do it, do we not?
—The reality is that at particular times of year,
particularly those peak seasons that Darren has talked about, employers are
just happy to get the labour on their properties and get their crops picked.
It may be that they have some responsibility. But, in reality, they are
looking to get their crop in. That is their income, and it is critical in
that period of time to have the labour on their property. Whether that be
right or wrong, that is the reality.
ACTING CHAIR —I accept what you are saying but, as legislators, we also have a certain amount of responsibilities. One of the many problems confronting this country is the problem of illegal workers in this country. I am not just talking about people on visitors visas who are working: there are some people who are in this country long term and who remain in the country by virtue of the fact that they are working. The department of immigration, about two to three years ago, set up an employer awareness campaign to educate employers about their rights and whom they should be employing from time to time. It explained the various visa categories that are available. Are you aware of the employer awareness campaign?
Mr Hickey —Yes. I am holding a Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs brochure entitled Who is entitled to work: a guide for employers. It was issued in May 1996. I actually obtained this from the backpackers hostel. Yes: as an industry, we are aware of the employers awareness campaign. It is carried out at the moment mainly through the hostel.
Ms Beelen —But growers across the board, being people, are different in lots of ways. There are some growers, for example, who see it as their responsibility to provide transport for the pickers and some form of accommodation. And then there are others who say their role is simply to give someone a job and that it is not their role to police that person or to provide accommodation, because that is the government's job. So, whilst there are requirements on them, being people, some are less able to provide that sort of service; but others see it very much as their responsibility.
ACTING CHAIR —I accept that you are saying that you are putting that forward as evidence. We have in place now what is a very useful program, not only for the people coming into Australia but also for Australians going overseas on a reciprocal basis because of the program. If that program is brought into disrepute and is abused by individuals who have no entitlement to use it, the program is then in jeopardy. All parties that benefit from the program have got responsibilities to ensure that the program works properly.
If we do get people exploiting the program by virtue of the fact that they are giving jobs to people who do not have an entitlement to the jobs--and it may be that, by doing that, wage rates and picking rates, or whatever they are called in your area, are brought down--there could be a problem with the continuation of the program.
—I think our submission suggests, either directly or
indirectly, that if there is a cap put on people that are granted working
holiday visas or if the program is put into some jeopardy, there will still
be a demand for labour. So why not let the market provide the demand for
working holiday visas to be granted? If there is a demand in the harvest
industry, then perhaps we can look to establishing what the demand is, being
a little more specific about what the number requirements are, and working
Mr Maruskanic —I do not know how you regulate it. We have not been able to do it with the tax system. How we will ever do it with the working visa system, I do not know.
ACTING CHAIR —If you look at the figures that the market decided over the recent few years--for example, in the recession times of 1991-92, we only had 25,000 people coming into Australia on working holiday-maker visas. If your industry in your region of Australia becomes dependent upon working holiday-maker visa holders to come in and pick the crop for you, and the market over the other side of the world decides not to come, you have got a huge problem. I would suggest that government has got a bigger responsibility in this than folding its arms and saying, `Let the market decide.'
Mrs Wilkinson —And we expect that that market and that demand will increase. It was stated in the submission that there are definitely increases in the production from year to year, and the demand for labour correlates with that. Our region is looking at exporting to Asia and that market--as it is everywhere else--is rapidly increasing. So, when you say that there could be an increase in the demand, we would say that there definitely will be an increase over subsequent years.
ACTING CHAIR —But while you are saying that, with our immigration program--a labour market program, essentially--we are reducing the numbers coming into Australia on that program based on factual information, not anecdotal information. You are operating on what is, essentially, a tourism orientated program. It seems to me that, perhaps, it is a little bit over-reliant on that program, or putting too much emphasis on it. It is not one that is really in your control.
Mrs Wilkinson--We acknowledge that point of view and say that because we are unique in our low unemployment level that that is a situation that has grown up over time. So, yes, we are probably in a situation unlike others. But, conversely, if people come on a working holiday visa and there is not a demand for work, then the situation is that there are people here who probably cannot stay as long because the work is not available. I suppose that we would say that that is the risk to some degree that they take in coming. There is no guarantee of a job when they get that visa. They come hoping that they will be able to supplement their travel with some work and, I guess, that is their responsibility. Likewise, the issue that you have just raised is, in effect, our responsibility.
ACTING CHAIR —Have you got any final thoughts you want to give to the committee?
—Can I just add on that last point, before summing
up, that our population is not on the rise, as it may be in some of the
metropolitan areas. In fact, across the region, other than Wagga, most of
the populations are on the decline. So while productivity continues to boom,
particularly in places like the MIA, the population is not on the increase
at the same time.
ACTING CHAIR —Thank you very much for your attendance here this afternoon and for the evidence and the cooperation you have given to the committee. We really do appreciate you coming the distance you have to appear before us.
Resolved (on motion by Ms Gambaro):
That this committee authorises publication of the proof transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.
Committee adjourned at 4.53 p.m.