ROTTEN IDEA: Pozieres farmer Jeff McMahon (right) with backpackers Makayla Lun and Benjamin Wong. Mr McMahon said the ACTU's proposd changes to visa rules would throw the horitculture industry in to dissarray.
ROTTEN IDEA: Pozieres farmer Jeff McMahon (right) with backpackers Makayla Lun and Benjamin Wong. Mr McMahon said the ACTU's proposd changes to visa rules would throw the horitculture industry in to dissarray. Liana Turner

Plan to ban the backpacker slammed

THE army of backpackers labouring on Southern Downs farms could be a thing of the past if the Australia Council of Trade Unions has its way.

In its submission to a parliamentary inquiry into temporary visas, the ACTU called for an end to the holiday extension for tourists who completed up to three months of farm work.

The ACTU also wants a cap on holiday visas, a ban on job advertising that exclusively targets tourists, and for the government to collect more data on backpackers exercising their rights at work.

While this would create more demand for Australian workers, two Southern Downs orchard managers said the changes would bring about a labour shortage.

Stacey Colthup manages Traprock Orchard and employs 20-40 backpackers. Her labour needs change from season to season, making backpackers necessary.

"It is extremely hard to fill our labour requirements with Australian workers, particularly our temporary roles," she said.

"Australians are looking for more permanent work.

"If we didn't have access to backpackers we would not be able to operate."

Traprock Orchard takes on workers in May for pruning and ramps up production during the harvest from October to December.

It employs a handful of locals but only has work for eight months of the year.

Mrs Colthup said backpackers were not ideal.

"While they fill a shortage, they are extremely lazy and we constantly have to train them," she said.

Even for unskilled labour they paid about $23per hour.

To build a pool of skilled, temporary workers Mrs Colthup will apply for the Federal Government's season working program and hopes to sponsor a cohort of Pacific Islanders.

The programs requires farmers to pay for flights, provide accommodation and pastoral care, such as helping workers set up a bank account, join a church and go shopping.

Mrs Colthup said the program was better than relying on backpackers.

"The benefit of the seasonal workers is they come back year after year, you tend to recruit families and, after a while, they become self-sufficient," she said.

But it is a big commitment and will be hard to fulfil in lean times, whereas backpackers bring flexibility. "The good thing with backpackers is we only have to call up the local recruitment agency in town and they are here the next day," Mrs Colthup said.

Jeff McMahon is another fruit and vegetable producer who relies on backpackers to meet demand.

He can have up to 100 foreigners labouring at his organic farm and thinks it is irresponsible to expect Australian workers to fill all the roles. "You can't get big numbers of Australians at short notice," he said. "If I wanted 30 workers tomorrow they would have to come in from all over place."

He said Australians had too many responsibilities that required reliable, full-time work.

"Backpackers might work on our place for a few months and then work somewhere else for a few months," he said. "They don't have kids at school or a mortgage to pay."

Any change to the current structure would throw his business into disarray, so Mr McMahon is calling on the ACTU to take a second look.

"It is pretty simple, it'd put our industry back a long way, we need that labour and the scheme is a very good one," he said.

"There are farms in places like Shepparton that can't get enough labour, if they did anything like this it would be even more of a disaster."

For his part, Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said cutting the visa program was a "stupid" idea. "If this plan became a reality then our fruit and vegetables won't get to the city supermarkets - they'll rot in the fields," he said.

"Don't these people realise we rely on backpackers to pick fruit and vegetables?"

"The Coalition is moving to get more workers for farmers, not less. We're extending backpacker visas from two years to three, not cutting them to one."