Regional employers desperate for backpackers to return as labor shortage continues

Resurrecting the nation’s reputation in the eyes of foreign parents could help Jane Coole patch the holes in her track record.

Restaurant owner Esperance has struggled with crippling labor shortages throughout the pandemic, which forced her to close during peak tourist times and when too many staff caught the virus.

It was a similar story for Espérance farmer Mic Fels, who after struggling to find casual workers for the past two years has now seen many full-time workers leave for more lucrative industries or because they were exhausted.

But as life returns to normal – with vaccination mandates scrapped across 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 country was still struggling to attract seasonal labor again – particularly to convince aspiring backpacker parents that international travel was safe and that Australia was a worthy host.

Jane Coole (right) has struggled to find workers during peak tourist times for the past two years.(Provided)

‘Fortress Australia’

Mr Latchford said the purse strings behind backpacking trips were often controlled by parents, giving them influence over where and when their children went.

“I was like, ‘It’s not their card, it’s mum and dad’s extra card’.”

He believed parents would be more cautious than their children about traveling to Australia, worried about the fallout if their child caught COVID, particularly if they had come up against Australia’s strict COVID regulations over the course of of the past two years.

“[Some people] probably aren’t so warm and fuzzy about Australia right now,” he said.

A barista pours milk into a paper cup in a cafe.
Regional cafes and restaurants are still short of manpower.(Instagram: Social Barista)

But he said the country’s tourism bodies were working hard to re-market Australia internationally and believed backpackers would be back.

On May 15, there were 32,796 working holidaymakers in Australia, a 40% increase since borders reopened on November 22.

But 46,100 working holiday visa holders remained abroad.

Skepticism about visa reform

Farmer Mr Fels called on the government for more urgent action – an emergency task force to speed up visa processing for skilled workers.

The WA Farmers grain section chairman said many farmers were quietly “panicking” as permanent workers who saw them through the pandemic left for bigger paychecks in the mining and construction industries in booming.

He said others had quit because they were exhausted after years of covering the shortfall left by a shortage of casual workers.

“They’ve gone from two years of hard work and succeeded and now they’re starting to lose full-time workers without a pool of people to come up behind them,” he said.

While the new federal government has a plan to make up for that shortfall — reforming the Pacific Labor Mobility (PALM) program to improve conditions for workers and streamline administration for employers — Mr. Fels said those workers don’t probably wouldn’t have the skills required for large-scale farming.

Five green pickers working in a paddock.
Mic Fels needs more skilled workers in large-scale agriculture.(ABC Midwest and Wheatbelt: Chris Lewis)

“The Pacific Islands are not a skilled farm laborer origin,” he said.

Yet a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the scheme would be the main way to fill labor shortages in rural and regional parts of Australia – with 52,000 pre-qualified workers ready to join the 24,000 currently in the country.

Mr Fels said the former government’s plan to introduce the Australian agricultural visa was also flawed because it would attract workers from South East Asia – another region where large-scale farming is rare.

He believed that a more viable short-term solution would be to speed up existing visa flows, to bring workers with the right skills into the country quickly.

A Home Office spokesman said it was already prioritizing applications on the Priority Migration Skilled Occupations List (PMSOL) and those in critical sectors including agriculture.

Job , updated

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