Backpacker worker numbers in decline across Granite Belt

FARMERS on the Granite Belt are expected to be hit hard by the loss of the tax-free threshold for seasonal workers.

The Federal Government will remove the threshold for working holiday visa holders from July 1. It means workers will pay 32.5% tax from the first dollar they earn.

Currently, backpackers, who come to the region for seasonal work, can earn up to $18,200 without paying tax. Harvest recruitment manager from BEST Harvest Labour, Sue Frances, said there was already a downturn in the number of backpackers coming to work in Australia and the higher tax could impact this further.

"I don't think it's so much as the removal of the tax-free threshold, as the increase in the rate of tax that they're going to have to pay," she said.

"Most of them up until now have been paying 13% to 15% and claiming the tax-free threshold.

"We're already noticing a decline. That wouldn't be directly related to tax changes but that's probably from other reasons that we aren't 100% sure about.

"With the peak season to come, I know by the end of February, March we'll be struggling to find enough workers. We were struggling before Christmas to find enough workers when everyone was taking off for Christmas and New Year's."

New figures from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection show the number of backpackers taking advantage of working visas in Australia has dropped repeatedly over the past two years, with more than 34,000 fewer visas being granted in 2014-15 than in 2012-13.

The numbers include a nearly 60% decline in workers from Ireland and a 26% decline in workers from Taiwan and South Korea.

A Granite Belt farmer, who did not want his name to be published, said it would definitely affect the horticultural industry.

"Horticulture is a very labour intensive industry, it needs people to work, and if it doesn't work then you are going to have to pay more to get the workers. Paying more will result in either the chain source in the market having to pay more or businesses going bankrupt," the farmer said.

"There's even rumblings throughout the industry that the Korean Government is telling their younger people not to come over here on a working visa because of it."

The move was announced in last year's Federal Budget and has since been met with a backlash from a number of peak farming bodies.

AUSVEG released a statement saying the lack of workers on rural farms will only become more critical.

"While Australian growers' first preference is always to employ local workers, there is simply not enough local labour to satisfy demand during peak harvesting periods, and backpackers play a vital role on Australian farms by providing a workforce during these critical times," the statement said.

"If the ongoing decline in the number of backpackers coming to Australia isn't arrested, or if these workers aren't replaced with labour from another source like the Seasonal Worker Program, we are facing a very real threat to the future of our industry."

Ms Frances said the weakness of the Australian dollar and bad media coverage of labour practices might be to blame for the decline.

"We've definitely noticed a downturn in the number of workers, so combined with that decrease plus that tax rise, we're not really sure how that's going to affect the numbers but if it affects that number even further then a lot of farmers in Australia are going to be in a very, very difficult situation," she said.

"This year during November and December, there wasn't a chronic shortage, but there was definitely less people available on my files. I didn't have that 200 or 300 person backlog all the time that we've had for many, many years."

Stanthorpe Border Post

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