Backpacker tax would devastate SEQ strawberry industry: growers

Tony Moore – Brisbane Times – 26th May, 2016

Wanted: Local workers – not backpackers – to pick strawberries and work in the Sunshine Coast’s strawberry industry.

Preference: People who live in south-east Queensland over our visiting backpackers.

On offer: 6000 to 8000 jobs as packers and pickers between May and September.

Future prospects: “The Sweetest Job of All”. Details from www.thesweetestjob.com.au.

Biggest problem: Australia’s proposed backpacker tax of 32.5 per cent

Strawberry farms around Caboolture now rely on 7000 backpackers and “overseas holidaymakers”.

Local growers argue it is “proactive” and cheaper to employ the same workers for strawberry picking year after year, rather than train new overseas workers season after season.

However they are mostly worried the proposed backpacker tax – which has been delayed for six months by the federal government – will stop large numbers of backpackers working on their farms.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was questioned over Labor’s position on the proposed backbacker tax on Thursday morning, but did not specifically say Labor would withdraw the proposed tax.

“If we were elected we would sit down with the farmers, with the tourism operators. We have said this is one of the worst-designed taxes we’ve ever seen,” Mr Shorten said.

This month Queensland Strawberry Growers Association vice-president  Adrian Schultz told the ABC that strawberry farms near Wamuran – near Caboolture – used about 7000 backpackers.

“Anecdotally, there was some evidence that backpacker numbers were already affected,” Mr Schultz said.

“Our area alone (at Wamuran) handles up to 7000 backpackers coming through, so we rely on them a great deal and it has a lot of people worried.”

The government plans to close a concession allowing backpackers as “non-residents” to claim the wages they earn on Australian farms tax-free. They would instead pay 32.5 cents on each dollar earned.

Farmers say the decision will cost backpackers money, meaning backpackers will not pick fruit, and they fear backpackers will holiday in New Zealand or Canada instead of Australia.

Berry Patch strawberry grower Charmaine Davey said the companies wanted more local workers in south-east Queensland’s strawberry industry.

“It was only about 10 years ago that the workforce on our farm was almost all local,” Ms Davey said.

“These days, over 80 per cent of our workers are from overseas.

“As much as we value our foreign work force, who have played a pivotal role in growing this industry to the size it is today, we would love to see a significant increase in local workers who are willing to become a part of our farming family and return each year for strawberry season.”

Around 80 per cent of south-east Queensland’s strawberries are grown on the Sunshine Coast and in the Moreton Bay region.

Queensland Strawberry Growers Association, Growcom and the Food and Agricultural Network partnered with the two local councils to drive a local jobs campaign linked to strawberries.

QSGA development officer Jennifer Rowling said growers wanted to develop a “returning workforce” and not rely on seasonal backpackers.

She says growers genuinely believe the backpacker tax “will have a devastating impact” on their industry.

“If the backpacker tax comes in that level – at 32.5 per cent – the backpackers and the working visa holidaymakers have told us that they will not come here,” she said.

“Why work in this industry if we are not going to make any money?”

She said Thursday’s plan was “not specific” to the backpacker tax  – “but the backpacker tax is one of the threats to our workforce”.  

Ms Rowling said growers were already facing a decline in working-visa travellers.

She said growers wanted stable, local workforce “as a base”, because it would save them money because they would not have to retain successive waves of overseas backpackers.

Sunshine Coast Council’s economic development committee chairman Cr Stephen Robinson said the idea had merit.

“The aim of this is to gain a returning workforce of local employees, rather than a backpacker ‘one season only’ workforce, reduce re-training costs and drive job creation within the local economy.”

President of the Queensland Strawberry Growers Association Luigi Coco agreed growers were concerned at changes which could make it harder to attract backpackers.

“Getting temporary workers to pick strawberries can often be difficult,” he said.

“This campaign offers our growers the chance to build themselves a stable workforce of local residents. “

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