Workers will be able to stay up to 12 months under changes announced on April 4 (Image/Aus Gov)

CANBERRA, 4 April 2020 (TATOLI) –  Seasonal Worker Program participants already in Australia will be able to extend their stay up to 12 months, under changes announced by the Australian government today.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the changes affect some 2.17 million people currently in the country on temporary visas, including more than 7,000 with the SWP.

Australia’s Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud (Image/ABC News)

Mr Littleproud said the “pragmatic” decision was a reflection of how important those foreign workers are to some of the country’s key industries.

“What we are saying to those visa holders is that if you’re prepared to stay in this country and help us get through this coronavirus then we’ll extend your visa,” he said this morning.

Among the changes, SWP workers can extend their visas up to 12 months, the six month cap on work with a single approved employer will be waived, and workers must agree to 14 days mandatory quarantine when moving between districts.

“There is a duty of responsibility of farmers, industry and visa holders to ensure they live up to [the quarantine],” Mr Littleproud said. 

Workers experiencing financial hardship will also be able to have access to their superannuation, or pension payments. Superannuation is normally only available upon leaving the country.

Agriculture industry leaders had reportedly been in crisis talks with the government over concerns of looming labour shortages, with the pipeline of SWP and ‘backpacker’ farm labourers turned off amid global travel restrictions.

“This is a critical time for our food security and nation but also continuing to keep export markets open,” Mr Littleproud said.

“We have listened to farmers and we are ensuring we are doing this in a responsible way that meets health requirements.”

President of the National Farmers Federation, Fiona Simpson, said the decision gives certainty to many businesses facing labour shortages.

“The farm sector relies on a combination of local and foreign workers to get fruit and vegetables picked and packed and ready for Australians to enjoy. Without international workers many farmers would be forced to leave produce to simply rot and die,” she said in a statement.

Timor-Leste’s labour board, SEPFOPE, last month suspended recruitment of workers to send to the SWP and to South Korea, amid bans on foreign nationals arriving in those countries.

“We ask you all to continue waiting calmly until the Australian and Korean governments open their borders once again to [foreign] workers… including Timorese,” SEPFOPE Secretary, Julião da Silva said at the time.

SWP workers return to Dili International Airport on Wednesday, March 25 (Image/Antonio Gonçalves)

Workers in their hundreds have since flown home amid the pandemic, mostly after the beginning of the mandatory 14-day quarantine for international arrivals.

Journalist: Robert Baird

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