Seasonal workers in shortage on the Coffs Coast
A SHORTAGE of seasonal workers is causing ongoing challenges for the region's blueberry industry, and growers fear new tax changes targeting backpackers will only make the situation worse.
Several Coffs Coast blueberry growers say they have struggled to access the labour needed for this summer's harvest, forcing some crops to be abandoned.
Oz Group Co-op chairman Gurmesh Singh said a lack of workers combined with a shorter harvesting season had placed added burden on the region's growers.
"This season was more compressed and finding people at the right time was challenging," he said.
"Some growers were working longer hours, and others were not getting around to (harvesting) their whole farm and ended up sacrificing a whole block to save others."
Seasonal worker numbers have also fallen Australia- wide, with figures from the Department of Immigration showing 34,000 fewer working holiday visas were issued last year compared with two years ago.
Mr Singh said tax changes targeting seasonal workers could place additional strain on securing labour.
Under current laws, a working holiday-maker can claim the tax-free threshold of $18,200 if they work in one place for six months or longer.
But from July 1, changes announced by Joe Hockey last year will mean working holiday-makers will no longer be able to claim the tax break.
Mr Singh called for the changes to be revoked by the Federal Government.
"Backpackers will now be taxed 32.5 cents for every dollar they earn and their take-home pay will be severely reduced," he said.
Mr Singh said the changes could have an impact on Australia's international standing as a working destination.
"Australia has built a reputation as a place for people to come to for a year or two to find work, and at the same time farmers get their crops picked," he said.
"Seasonal workers are already telling us Australia has become far too expensive to live in and they've indicated they will go to other countries such as New Zealand in the future.
"I see the (Federal Government's) changes as a cynical money grab that could give Australia a bad reputation overseas."
Mr Singh said further reductions in seasonal workers would impact on the industry's annual operations.
"Without people here to pick the crop, less fruit will be produced and a lot of skilled jobs in the industry will disappear," he said.
Industry body AUSVEG also cited the weakening Australian dollar as a factor in the decline in foreign farm workers.