A SUNSHINE Coast strawberry industry representative wants the federal government to radically rethink qualification for Centrelink benefits to stimulate greater domestic interest in work in the seasonal horticultural industry.
Luigi Coco, the Queensland representative for Strawberries Australia Inc, said the industry in the greater Caboolture district alone required more than 6000 seasonal workers annually and with greater numbers likely in the future.
He wants the government to allow the unemployed who gain what is only short-term seasonal work in the sector to be allowed to retain health care card and transport benefits as an incentive to have them start a job.
The pay-off, he argues, would be greater motivation to go on and find full-time employment.
"As soon as they start making money they lose their benefits,'' Mr Coco said.
"If the government didn't take the benefit away it would be an incentive for people to make extra money."
Should the government make it easier for people on Centrelink benefits to do seasonal work?
This poll ended on 14 January 2016.
Of course. People should be encouraged to take what work they can find without fear of missing out when the work ends.
No. It probably wouldn't work anyway.
I wouldn't do fruit picking either way.
This is not a scientific poll. The results reflect only the opinions of those who chose to participate.
His comments come as vegetable industry peak body AUSVEG has warned of a significant decline in the number of backpackers visiting Australia under the Working Holiday Maker program which had the potential to threaten the industry's future.
New figures from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection reveal a collapse in the number of workers coming to Australia under the 417 visa.
There were 34,000 fewer visas granted in 2014-15 than in 2012-13 including a nearly 60% decline in workers from Ireland and a 26% from Taiwan and South Korea.
"The Australian vegetable industry faces critical local labour shortages during peak seasonal periods, and our growers rely on backpackers to harvest their crops and prevent crippling losses," said AUSVEG CEO Richard Mulcahy.
Mr Coco's Elimbah farm employs between 150-160 pickers and packers at the peak of the season from July through October with good pickers earning in excess of $260 a day.
He said backpacker numbers have dropped in the past two years principally because of the loss of a tax rebate through a change in government policy.
The 417 visa holders must work 88 days on a farm to qualify for a second visa that then allowed them to shift to the city for jobs.
Mr Luigi said half his workload was training new staff. He had originally been able to draw on a pool of Australians of Samoan and Filipino backgrounds but as they had grown older younger generations of Australians hadn't stepped forward to replace them.
Mr Luigi has seen Asian workers on his farm earn enough in two seasons to pay for a home for their family back home.
He has also witnessed the transformative quality of work on a group of four young people he employed none of whom had worked in the previous 12 months.
"It was a challenge to get them motivated but when they began to make money they knuckled down. I wrote them all references and they all went on to good (full time) jobs."
He said government officials needed to understand that if the unemployed could find casual work without losing non-monetary Centrelink benefits many would find the motivation to find full time work.
"Through seasonal jobs they are learning how to work,'' Mr Coco said.
"They can then go on to another job.
"I have people call me who are 40 and have never worked a day in their lives.''
Meanwhile AUSVEG said Australian growers' first preference was always to employ local workers, but there was insufficient local labour to satisfy demand during peak harvesting periods.
"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," Mr Mulcahy said
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