Resurrecting the nation’s reputation in the eyes of overseas parents could help Jane Coole plug holes in her roster sheet.
The Esperance restaurant owner battled crippling workforce shortages throughout the pandemic, which forced her to close during peak tourist periods and when too many staff caught the virus.
It was a similar story for Esperance farmer Mic Fels, who after grappling to find casual workers for the past two years has now had many full-time workers leave for more lucrative industries or because they were exhausted.
But as life returns to normal — with vaccine mandates scrapped in most industries from June 10 — the main thing both employers now hope to see is an influx of workers.
Yet Simon Latchford, a tourism development manager based in the south coast town, said the nation still faced challenges in luring the seasonal workforce back again — particularly convincing the parents of budding backpackers that international travel was safe and Australia was a worthy host.
Mr Latchford said the purse strings behind backpacking trips were often controlled by parents, giving them sway over where and when their children went.
“I was like, ‘This isn’t their card, this is mum and dad’s supplementary card’.”
He believed parents would be more cautious than their children about Australian travel, worried about the fallout if their child caught COVID, particularly if they had come up against Australia’s strict COVID regulations during the past two years.
“[Some people] probably aren’t that warm and fuzzy about Australia at the moment,” he said.
But he said the nation’s tourism bodies were working hard to market Australia internationally once again, and believed backpackers would be back eventually.
On May 15, there were 32,796 working holiday-makers in Australia, a 40 per cent increase since borders reopened on November 22.
But 46,100 working holiday-maker visa-holders remained overseas.
Scepticism over reformed visa scheme
Farmer Mr Fels has called for more urgent action from government — an emergency task force to speed up visa processing for skilled workers.
The WA Farmers grains section chairman said many farmers were quietly “freaking out” as the permanent workers that saw them through the pandemic leave for bigger pay cheques in the booming mining and construction industries.
He said others had quit because they were burnt out after years covering the shortfall left by a dearth of casuals.
“They’ve gone from two years of hard labour and scraped through and now they’re starting to lose full-time workers with no pool of people to come in behind them,” he said.
While the new federal government has a plan to address this shortfall — reforming the Pacific Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme to improve conditions for workers and streamline administration for employers — Mr Fels said these workers would be unlikely to have the skills required for broadacre farming.
“The Pacific Islands are not an origin of skilled broadacre farm workers,” he said.
Yet a spokesperson from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the scheme would be the primary means for filling workforce shortages in rural and regional Australia — with 52,000 pre-screened workers ready to join the 24,000 currently in the country.
Mr Fels said the former government’s plan to bring in the Australian Agriculture Visa was similarly flawed, as it would draw workers from south east Asia — another region where broadacre farming is uncommon.
He believed a more viable short-term solution would be to fast-track existing visa streams, to get workers with appropriate skills in the country quickly.
A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs said it already prioritised applications on the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List (PMSOL) and those in critical sectors, which included agriculture.
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