School-leavers can get HECS discounts to exchange overseas gap years for fruit picking


School leavers can get HECS rebates to exchange overseas gap years for fruit picking, while still getting job seeker payments to help farmers facing backpacker shortages

  • Students who completed year 12 were urged to spend time picking fruit to help farmers
  • The parliamentary inquiry suggested incentives such as discounts on university loans
  • Australia is missing 70,000 backpackers for non-committal work picking fruit on farms
  • Another proposal is that JobSeeker participants assist in the harvest season this year

Students who finish high school are urged to exchange their traditional overseas gap years for fruit picking on Australian farms.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused an incidental labor shortage, dropping the number of backpackers on regional farms to 70,000 during the harvest season.

A parliamentary inquiry designed to replenish that workforce, which is usually between 150,000 and 200,000, has suggested that school-leavers work as fruit pickers in exchange for a tuition discount.

The proposed ‘Australia Needs You’ campaign would also allow unemployed people to earn money by working on farms without losing job seeker’s allowance, and one-time payments would be made to cover travel and subsistence expenses.

Research chair Julian Leeser, Liberal MP from New South Wales, released an interim parliamentary report on Tuesday outlining the ambitious recommendations, which are supported by both sides of parliament.

A parliamentary inquiry has proposed 'Australia Needs You', a campaign that would give school-leavers discounts on tuition fees for doing farm work (stock image)

A parliamentary inquiry has proposed ‘Australia Needs You’, a campaign that would give school-leavers discounts on tuition fees for doing farm work (stock image)

The Berowra MP said the agricultural sector is facing severe labor shortages, with up to 60 percent of the workforce mostly made up of foreign backpackers.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, labor companies and farmers reported an increase in the number of Australians contacting them for work, but that dropped once the government announced payments for Jobkeeper and JobSeeker.

Global travel restrictions due to COVID-19 also meant that school leavers were unable to take their usual overseas vacations.

Mr Leeser said that if the 40,000 young Australians taking a gap year in the UK, US and Canada were to work on farms instead, it would fill the labor shortage.

“Young Australians like adventure, they want to meet other Australians,” he said.

“They want to make some money at a time when many of the jobs they would otherwise do in hospitality and retail aren’t there.”

The interim report recommends the government to discount the university HECS rate, but leaves the final figures to the treasurer and the Minister of Education.

The coronavirus pandemic means Australia will need at least 70,000 foreign backpackers during harvest season to work on regional farms (stock image)

The coronavirus pandemic means Australia will need at least 70,000 foreign backpackers during harvest season to work on regional farms (stock image)

The coronavirus pandemic means Australia will need at least 70,000 foreign backpackers during harvest season to work on regional farms (stock image)

Unemployed Australians would also be paid for farm work and would be allowed to keep their job seeker benefits under the plan.

During the consultation, Mr Leeser heard concerns that the travel costs would be too high, so the committee also proposed a travel and accommodation allowance.

Mr. Leeser warned that action must be taken to support farmers who have the prospect of not being able to harvest fruit from their trees.

He gave the example of a citrus farmer from Emerald, Queensland, who was forced to cultivate 100 acres of fruit trees that take six years to grow back.

“The reason he’s pulling them out is because he doesn’t think he’s going to get people to pick those trees,” he said.

The MP warned that if no solution is found, it will mean less local fruit and higher prices.

The government will also consider allowing people to stay on Job Seeker's Allowance if they complete regional work during the harvest season (stock image)

The government will also consider allowing people to stay on Job Seeker's Allowance if they complete regional work during the harvest season (stock image)

The government will also consider allowing people to stay on Job Seeker’s Allowance if they complete regional work during the harvest season (stock image)

WHAT ARE THE MAIN RECOMMENDATIONS FOR A ‘GAP YEAR HOME’?

The Committee recommends the ‘Have a Gap Year at Home Campaign’ to attract young Australians, particularly the current group of Year 12s and university graduates, to undertake regional work

For the next 12 months, workers should still receive job seeker’s benefit while doing low-paid agricultural and horticultural work

A one-time payment to support the travel and accommodation costs incurred

Changes to the Working Holiday Maker visa for the next 12 months to allow for extensions in exchange for regional work

Provide an incentive for international students who have completed their studies to stay longer in exchange for work in peri-urban, regional, rural and remote parts of Australia

The government has recommended a review within 12 months

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