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International migration and agricultural labour in Australia

1 Jan 2001

With some 23.3 percent of its population born overseas and 19.2 percent Australia-born people with at least one parent born overseas, Australia has a greater proportion of its population made up of migrants than any of the OECD nations. Although immigrants make up a disproportionately small percentage of the agricultural workforce increasing attention is being drawn in Australia to the role of international migration in meeting the labour needs of harvesting fruit and vegetables. It is this issue which the present paper addresses. Australian post-war immigration has been dominated by permanent settlement and there has been bipartisan government as well as general public support for an immigration program based purely on new settlers and the nation has consistently eschewed guest worker programs. However, in recent years a number of visa categories have been introduced in Australia which allow selected non-permanent immigrants to work but the government has resisted pressure from the horticultural industry to bring in harvest workers on a temporary visa. However, harvest labour is being provided through other visa categories of non-permanent migration, especially the Working Holiday Makers Program. The paper begins with a brief historical account of the involvement of immigrants in rural labour in Australia. It then moves to a consideration of the paradox of the existence of a shortage of labour in some Australian rural industries in a context of high national unemployment. We then move to a consideration of the current and likely future of the involvement of temporary immigrants entering Australia under the Working Holiday Maker (WHM) Program in harvest labour. This is followed by a consideration of other migrants involved in the industry. Finally some policy issues relating to harvest labour and immigration are discussed and some comments are made about the future outlook.

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