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A Colac lamb processor has slammed the federal government’s plans to scrap the controversial 457 visa.

A large regional lamb processor has slammed the federal government’s plans to scrap the controversial 457 visa.

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457 CONCERNS: Julie and Chris Vogels with Muhiddin Sultonov, from Uzbekistan, one of the foreign workers, at their Coorimungle dairy farm. Photo: Steve Hynes.

457 CONCERNS: Julie and Chris Vogels with Muhiddin Sultonov, from Uzbekistan, one of the foreign workers, at their Coorimungle dairy farm. Photo: Steve Hynes.

The government this week announced it was axing the 457 category, to be replaced by a Temporary Skill Shortage Visa. But Australian Lamb Company managing director John Verrall, who runs a plant in Colac, which supplies Coles, said the 457’s had been a plus for the business and the regional economy. “The introduction of foreign workers through 457 Visa’s have brought in many knife skills which are not available locally, or within a 100 kilometre radius of our Colac plant,” Mr Verrall said.

 “A percentage of Australians seeking employment have it drummed into them at schools, universities and home that working in a processing plant or abattoir is not the place to be seen. Foreign workers have a better work ethic in this regard and foreign workers are prepared to do certain jobs that Aussies wouldn’t ever look at, or attempt.”

Mr Verrall said Colac had a population of 13,000 and finding the many skilled workers required was very difficult, as there were two other large businesses seeking employees as well.

“Australian Lamb Company Group has brought the Colac region, in the past three and a half years, an amazing ability to ensure job security to over 700 people from all over the regional community.”

“The real truth is that 457s haven’t just been that significant for our business - they have brought us the ability to ensure our customers have the skills at our plant to fulfil the increasingly difficult specifications which go to the food services around the universe”  He said skills required at the plant could not be sourced locally. “There are less than 100,000 457’s at last count, in a workforce of 12 million; they’ve neither saved the economy nor screwed every dole recipient.”

The Australian Lamb Company was always interviewing potential employees, but a percentage did not want to work, Mr Verrall said.

“It’s too easy being on the slack government dole system,” Mr Verrall said. “Why not sit back, pool your rescores with others do nothing then have money placed into your bank account each fortnight? This is a disease now into the third generation – cure the ‘dole disease” and we will not need 457 visas, end of story.”

Business was becoming uncompetitive. “Our high wages and taxes, in comparison with all other countries, have become extra hard as the Federal and State governments continue with high taxing, to pay their gross dole payments. 457 visa fiddling makes up a very small percentage of the overall issues confronting government, who have lost their way.”

Radford managing director Robert Radford, Warragul, said he had never used 457 visa holders. “I’ve never had any overseas workers at my plant,” Mr Radford said. “I don’t need them, I can get enough staff locally, without looking at overseas workers, at this stage.

“I am one of the few plants that can guarantee permanent staff, five days a week - that gives them job security, and it attracts some of the better blokes, in the area.” 

A spokesman for Gathercoles, Patterson Lakes, also said the company did not use workers, on 457 visas. Teys Australia said it was often difficult to find local workers, but would not make further comment, until it was notified of more details about the changes.

But Victoria Valley Meats owner Peter Polovinka, Trafalgar, said he forsaw some problems in bringing employees from countries like Korea, who checked products going for export.

“If we sell to Korea, we get the Koreans to come and make sure they are happy with the way it is being processed, so there is no rejection, or problems in the supply chain,” Mr Polovinka said.

Meanwhile, the dairy sector has sought urgent clarification on planned changes to 457 visas.

Australian Dairy Farmers (ADF) interim chief executive John McQueen said he was seeking assurances there would not be any changes to the Dairy Industry Labour Agreement.

Mr McQueen said access to skilled workers was essential to the continued growth and productivity of the dairy industry, yet there was still a critical shortage of skilled farm workers.

“The dairy industry relies on skilled migration to bolster its workforce and help our farmers with critical labour shortages,” Mr McQueen said. “Our preference is always to hire Australian workers, but there are not enough experienced workers to meet the demand.”

Under the template agreement, finalised with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in July 2015, dairy farmers can recruit skilled senior farmhands from overseas on 457 visas, as well as farm managers.

Mr McQueen said the dairy industry had been investing heavily in recruitment, training and retention programs since 2006, and would continue to do so. “We are concerned that instead of addressing farmers worries and streamlining the application process, the changes could mean more red tape by placing an even greater administrative burden on farmers,” Mr McQueen said.

Mr McQueen said more detail on the Government’s new visa program was required and ADF would be consulting government on the changes.

Coorimungle dairy farmer Chris Vogels said most of his workers were from overseas.

“We don’t have many on 457’s, but we were planning on using them quite a bit,” Mr Vogels said.

“I don’t know what the changes are, it it’s going to make it harder to get staff, it’s going to be a big problem.”

Mr Vogels, and his wife Julie, milk 1500 cows, in two dairies, south of Timboon, employing 15 staff.

“We were looking at 457’s, if the government tightens up on other visas as well, it’s making it harder and harder – if they want a dairy industry, they need to relax some of those rules.

“On these big farms, we need a lot of labor and unfortunately local labor doesn’t want to milk cows at 3am in the middle of winter.”

And the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) called on the federal government to give primary producers a seat at the table, in any planned overhaul of the visa system. VFF president David Jochinke said the sector was keen to avoid the same breakdown in negotiations that last year befell the controversial backpacker tax.

“Any discussion over visa changes presents new opportunities to discuss a tailored working visa program to assist agriculture’s workforce needs,” Mr Jochinke said. “Everyone is still licking their wounds over the messy negotiations around the backpacker tax last year, and no-one wants to see that scenario played out for a second time.”

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