Migration Director Update: September 2020
As we adjust to a COVID-normal world, a number of key issues relating to regional migration have been thrust into the spotlight.
The first is workforce. The workforce challenges faced by regional industries, particularly the agricultural sector, are nothing new. Our farmers, fishers, tourism operators, meat processors and others have been struggling for years to attract and retain the workforce needed for their critical operations. Working holiday makers or “backpackers” have become a key source of labour. There have always been some drawbacks to using backpackers as agricultural labour given their transient nature, including the time and cost for employers in frequently recruiting and retraining. And sadly, we still hear of exploitation such as underpayment and illegal working conditions. Still, working holiday makers have proved indispensable to many regional industries. For example, according to the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance, backpackers have traditionally made up approximately 80% of the harvest labour workforce.
That source of labour has virtually dried up as Australia’s borders remain closed, driving thinking around ways to ensure that our key regional industries can access the workforce that they need to keep operating. The Joint Standing Committee on Migration suspended its inquiry into Regional Migration due to COVID-19 and launched the Inquiry into the Working Holiday Maker Program. The submissions available on its website make compelling reading and show the efforts and frustration of regional employers who are unable to source a local workforce, particularly for jobs that are seasonal and in remote locations. It is timely to consider how migrants and refugees already in Australia, looking for work, can help to fill the workforce shortages, and perhaps become a more steady and reliable source of labour while contributing to the growth of regional populations. Its only one piece of the workforce puzzle, but an important one.
The second key issue is the increasingly apparent attraction of regional living. Our forced work-from-home during COVID-19 has precipitated a rethink of the traditional working model, freeing up many more people to consider moving to regional Australia. Regional areas, open spaces, low-density living are all increasingly attractive lifestyle options. We may soon see an Australia in which remoteness and relative isolation are “selling points” for people looking for a healthy and safe lifestyle.
This unique era presents specific opportunities to regional communities that are trying to attract and retain residents. Regional areas seeking to increase their population should now be starting work on developing and implementing a targeted and achievable growth strategy. RAI is excited to be working with a number of regional communities to help them undertake an evidence-based assessment and to design a place-based, forward-looking strategy with a realistic set of priorities and actions.
We want to continue to facilitate the conversation on regional migration, providing a platform for regional community members, employers and others to share information on their experiences, challenges and opportunities. Our Regional Migration and Development Network’s Facebook group is that place and we warmly invite all those interested in regional workforce, regional living, population growth to become active members of the page to create a vibrant and informative network.