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School leavers could get HECS discounts to swap overseas gap years for fruit picking

Students finishing high school are being urged to swap their traditional overseas gap years for picking fruit on Australian farms.   

The coronavirus pandemic has caused a casual labour shortage, taking the number of backpackers on regional farms during harvest season down to 70,000.  

A parliamentary inquiry set up to replenish that workforce, which is usually between 150,000 and 200,000, has suggested school leavers work as fruit pickers in exchange for a discount on university fees.  

The proposed ‘Australia Needs You’ campaign would also allow the unemployed to earn money working on farms without losing JobSeeker benefits, and provide one-off payments to cover travel and accommodation costs. 

Chair of the inquiry, New South Wales Liberal MP Julian Leeser, released an interim parliamentary report on Tuesday with the ambitious recommendations, which are supported by both sides of parliament.

A parliamentary inquiry has proposed 'Australia Needs You', a campaign which would offer school leavers discounts on university fees for doing farm work (stock image)

A parliamentary inquiry has proposed ‘Australia Needs You’, a campaign which would offer school leavers discounts on university fees for doing farm work (stock image)

The Berowra MP said the agriculture sector has suffered a severe labour shortage with up to 60 per cent of the workforce usually made up of foreign backpackers. 

When the coronavirus pandemic struck in March, labour companies and farmers reported a rise in Australians contacting them for work – but that dropped off as soon as the government announced JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments.  

Global travel restrictions due to COVID-19 also meant school leavers have been unable to take their usual overseas holidays. 

Mr Leeser said if the 40,000 young Australians who have a gap year in the UK, US and Canada worked on farms instead, it would fill the labour shortfall.  

‘Young Australians love adventure, they want to meet other Australians,’ he said. 

‘They want to make some money at a time when a lot of jobs they would otherwise do in hospitality and retail aren’t there.’ 

The interim report recommends the government offer a discount on university HECS fees but has left the final figures up to the Treasurer and Education Minister.  

The coronavirus pandemic means Australia needs at least 70,000 foreign backpackers to work on regional farms during harvest season (stock image)

The coronavirus pandemic means Australia needs at least 70,000 foreign backpackers to work on regional farms during harvest season (stock image)

Unemployed Australians would also be paid for farm work and be allowed to keep their JobSeeker payments under the plan.  

During the consultation, Mr Leeser heard concerns that travels costs would be to high so the committee suggested a travel and accommodation allowance as well.  

Mr Leeser warned action needs to be taken to support farmers who are facing the prospect of not being able to harvest fruit from their trees.  

He gave the example of a citrus farmer from Emerald, Queensland, who has been forced to pull out 100 hectares of fruit trees that will take six years to grow back.

‘The reason he’s pulling them out is he doesn’t think he will get the people to go and pick those trees,’ he said. 

The MP warned if a solution is not found it will mean less local fruit and higher prices. 

The government will also consider allowing people to remain on JobSeeker payments if they complete regional work during harvest season (stock image)

The government will also consider allowing people to remain on JobSeeker payments if they complete regional work during harvest season (stock image) 

WHAT ARE THE KEY ‘GAP YEAR AT HOME’ RECOMMENDATIONS? 

The Committee recommends ‘Have a Gap Year at Home Campaign’ to attract young Australians, particularly the current cohort of Year 12s and university graduates, to undertake regional work

For the next 12 months, workers should still receive JobSeeker payments while undertaking low paid agricultural and horticultural work

A one-off payment to help with the travel and accommodation costs incurred

Changes to the Working Holiday Maker visa for the next 12 months to allow extensions in exchange for regional work 

Offer incentive to international students who have completed their studies to stay longer in exchange for work in peri-urban, regional, rural and remote parts of Australia

Government recommended a review in 12 months 

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