Confusion over NSW border permits for agriculture workers

By Rodney Woods

A decision to allow seasonal workers living in the NSW/Victorian border zone to cross the border daily has been welcomed by NSW Farmers.

The closure of the NSW/Victorian border due to the coronavirus pandemic prompted concerns about how the worker shortage would affect a range of industries who had already lost backpackers due to national border closures.

Wool producers are worried about a shearer shortage, with the 500 New Zealanders who usually cross the Tasman for the spring shearing season blocked from travelling.

Grain growers are nervous about labour with increased rainfall raising hopes of a bumper crop to be harvested between October and December.

NSW Farmers president James Jackson said the decision by the NSW Government to allow seasonal workers to travel across the border for farm work was promising.

“It’s imperative that government and industry work together to identify ongoing labour needs across horticulture and grain industries for the rest of 2020 and into early 2021,” he said.

“In coming months there will be an increased need for contractors and farm labour with predictions for a good grain harvest following extensive rain.

“This will mean an increased movement of harvesting contractors as well as seasonal workers in the horticulture sector across regional areas.

“The closure of international borders means that these industries need to mobilise seasonal workers and working holiday makers already in the country — we need to ensure they can safely cross borders to meet labour demand in different industries.”

The National Farmers Federation last Wednesday launched an online hub collating job listings and encouraging farmers to register vacant positions in the hope they can be filled locally.

“With many Australians now looking for work, it makes sense to do more to highlight the job and career opportunities in agriculture and the regions,” NFF chief executive Tony Mahar said.

However, confusion continued to reign early last week, with the NSW Department of Primary Industries and the state's Department of Customer Service seemingly not on the same page about who was eligible for a work permit to cross the border.

NSW DPI told Country News the essential service exemption was a blanket rule for all of agriculture unless you were a visa holder, meaning nearly all workers in the agricultural sector can obtain a permit.

However, a NSW Department of Customer Service spokesperson said decisions around who gets a permit were being determined on a case-by case basis.

“The critical services exemption is to ensure major infrastructure and essential services are maintained and not interrupted,” the spokesperson said.

“Permits are assessed on the particular circumstances of the applicant, and do not apply to all persons working in the mining, agriculture, construction, energy or manufacturing sectors.”