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Harvest labour – keeping up with the changing options

Business Management

This article was written for Australian Fruitgrower Magazine, prior to COVID-19, and does not reflect changes in awards and legislation as a result of the pandemic. For the latest information, see APAL’s dedicated COVID-19 resources page

There have never been more options for sourcing labour, says NHLIS State Manager (Vic) Rob Hayes, but rapidly changing rules mean growers need to pay attention to ensure they comply with labour laws when paying staff this harvest.

The last 12 months have seen many changes to the way harvest labour can be sourced and paid. Most of these changes have been good for growers with several programs expanded, new ones introduced and some red tape removed, however other changes will mean growers need to remain vigilant and make sure they comply with some newly introduced laws.A brief summary of some of the changes follows:

Horticulture Award changes
The lengthy four year process to review the Horticulture Award was finally completed on the 2 April 2019 when the Fair Work Commission handed down a decision that changes to the Horticulture Award would be implemented from the first full pay period on or after the 15 April 2019. The award changes are significant, and amongst other things now mean that casual employees are entitled to a night loading and overtime. Key changes that growers need to understand and comply with include

  • Casual employees are now entitled to overtime pay. This means that casual workers are now required to get paid 175 per cent of the casual hourly rate (including the 25 per cent casual loading which previously applied) when they work more than 12 hours in a single day or engagement, or more than 304 hours in an eight-week period.
  • A night loading now applies. Casual employees are also entitled to a 15 per cent night loading if they work between 8.31pm and 4.59am. This is paid in addition to their 25 per cent casual loading. Both loadings are calculated on their minimum hourly wage.
  • Overtime provisions do not apply to piece rate workers. Where workers are paid on a piece rate basis (i.e. where pay is related to how much you pick or pack), no overtime or night loading applies.
  • Public holiday penalty rates clarified. Although there have been no changes to public holiday penalty rates, the Commission’s decision reaffirmed that casual employees who work on a public holiday are paid 225 per cent of their minimum hourly wage (this includes their 25 per cent casual loading). Employees get this rate whether they’re working overtime hours or normal hours.

There is a lot of detail contained in the new award and if growers are unsure what their obligations are, they should contact the Fair Work Commission or their industry association for assistance.

Options for sourcing workers

While an Agriculture Visa may be the desired outcome for many growers, there seems little prospect of this new visa class being introduced in the medium term. Fortunately, there are a number of existing visa classes that allow overseas workers to do farm work. The good news for growers is that the number of people doing horticulture work on these visas is growing strongly. There are two main types of visas that are issued to workers who pick and pack fruit and vegetable crops:

– Working Holiday Visas, subclass 417 & 462 – these are commonly known as the “backpacker visas”. They allow workers from numerous overseas countries to come to Australia and work from as little as one day, up to three years, either with the one grower or with several employers.
– Temporary Work (International Relations) Visas, subclass 403 – this includes two visas; The Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) allows workers from the Pacific islands and Timor Leste to travel to Australia to work for periods of up to nine months. Importantly, workers have the opportunity to return in following seasons. The other is the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) which allows workers to stay for up to three continuous years.

While some of these visas have been available for many years, they are constantly being changed to make them more attractive for workers and better suited to the needs of growers.

Working Holiday Visas

Most backpackers doing horticulture work will be on the 417 Working Holiday Visa. Citizens from five countries – the UK, Taiwan, South Korea, France and Italy – are the ones most likely to complete the three months work required for a visa extension.

The lesser known working visa – the 462 Work and Holiday Visa, has also allowed people from a number of countries to come to Australia to work on farms. Because previously there was no opportunity for an extension, very few people under this visa chose to do harvest work. That’s now changing rapidly following the Federal Government’s November 2018 changes to the 462 visa.
These visa holders can now gain two 12-month visa extensions and work continuously for up to three years with the same business. These changes also apply to 417 visa holders. As well as being eligible for extensions, 462 visas are now available to a much wider range of countries. Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Mexico, Spain and Argentina are among the current group of 25 eligible nations. The Department of Home Affairs is currently negotiating to allow more countries to access the 462 visa, with India, Brazil, Fiji and the Philippines likely to join the program in the next 12 months.

Following the disastrous bushfires that impacted many horticulture producing areas, on 17 February 2020, the Commonwealth Government announced that backpackers will be able to perform paid or volunteer bushfire recovery work to gain a visa extension and can work for up to 12 months with the same employer or organisation without requesting permission from us.

Seasonal Work Program and Pacific Labour Scheme Visas
The SWP has undergone constant change to make it more suitable to grower needs. Major changes introduced in 2018 included increasing the maximum amount of time workers can stay in the country from six to nine months, reducing the grower contribution toward airfares from $500 to $300 per worker, and increasing the validity of compulsory labour market testing from three to six months. In late 2019 the Regional Agriculture Migration Package was introduced and included further changes to the SWP. The Seasonal Worker Programme Regional Pilot that was running in the regions of Sunraysia (NSW/Victoria); Goulburn/ Murray (Victoria) and the Riverina (NSW) was extended until 30 June 2022 and expanded from 1 January 2020 to take in the whole Wimmera-Mallee. From 1 January 2020 all Approved Employers in the four pilot regions of Sunraysia, Goulburn/ Murray, Riverina and Wimmera-Mallee will be able to share seasonal workers, meaning that smaller farmers and growers can potentially access seasonal workers for short periods of time.

The SWP grew by 3,000 workers in 2018-19 to a total of 12,000. This is an increase of 44 per cent, the largest absolute increase ever and one of the highest percentage growth rates. Three sending countries dominate the SWP with 85 per cent of workers coming from Tonga, Vanuatu or Timor-Leste. The PLS is a new program that commenced on 1 July 2018. The PLS enables Pacific island and Timor-Leste citizens to undertake semi-skilled work opportunities in horticulture for up to three continuous years. This program is ideal for sourcing forklift and tractor drivers or supervisors. Further good news surrounding Temporary Work Visas is that they are demand-driven and uncapped, with no shortage of highly motivated people wanting to come to Australia to work.


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