FRUIT and vegetable growers in the Bundaberg region have not seen a drop off in the number of backpackers coming to work here - the challenge is getting them here at the right time.
Peak national vegetable body Ausveg has warned a continuing decline in the number of backpackers visiting Australia under the Working Holiday Maker program is a threat to the future of the vegetable industry.
According to new figures from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, the number of workers coming to Australia under the 417 visa has dropped repeatedly over the past two years, with more than 34,000 fewer visas being granted in 2014-15 than in 2012-13.
This includes a nearly 60% decline in workers from Ireland and a 26% decline in workers from Taiwan and South Korea.
"The Australian vegetable industry faces critical local labour shortages during peak seasonal periods, and our growers rely on backpackers to harvest their crops and prevent crippling losses," Ausveg CEO Richard Mulcahy said.
Bundaberg Fruit and Vegetable Growers (BFVG) executive officer Peter Hockings said they had seen larger numbers of backpackers coming into the region.
"A big part of the challenge is co-ordinating them to come here at the right time," he said.
Although December, January and February were popular months for backpackers to come to the region because it was a pleasant time to be here, not many crops apart from mangoes were being harvested.
Mr Hockings said the drop in the numbers in the Working Holiday Program could be because unscrupulous operators were bringing workers in under student visas.
He said BFVG was looking forward to the report of a government task force looking into the issue.
Mr Hockings said BFVG fully encouraged the use of the Working Holiday Maker program because it was a good program.
Ausveg's Mr Mulcahy said the Working Holiday Maker program, which included the Working Holiday (subclass 417) visa and Work and Holiday (subclass 462) visa, allows visa holders to stay in Australia for 12 months.
Holders of the 417 visa can also receive a second one-year visa if they work for 88 days in regional areas, with the overwhelming majority of these extensions coming from work in agriculture, forestry and fishing.
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