Push for uni grads to work off HECS debt picking fruit
University students and recent graduates should be given a HECS debt discount to encourage them to pick crops in regional Australia and plug a dire labour shortage, a federal parliamentary committee led by a government MP says.
With harvest season approaching, the Joint Standing Committee on Migration made the recommendation on Tuesday after being told the number of available overseas workers had plunged from 140,000 to 70,000 due to COVID-19.
The committee took evidence that trees had already being ripped out because there was little prospect of produce being picked.
It heard that more than $6 billion of horticulture produce is at risk.
Committee chairman and Sydney Liberal MP Julian Leeser said if crops weren't picked then supply would be affected, potentially creating cost of living pressures for households across the nation.
The committee suggests a potential solution to the looming labour shortage would be for the government to "urgently develop" and implement a "Have a Gap Year at Home Campaign" to attract young Australians - particularly current Year 12s and university graduates - to work in the regions.
In an interim report, the mix of Coalition, Opposition and minor party MPs recommend the campaign be framed to appeal to young Australians' patriotism, sense of adventure and the potential to earn money while seeing their own country.
Mr Leeser said too often young Australians visit Berlin before Bundaberg. That needed to change during the pandemic.
"My message is your country needs you," the member for Berowra told The Daily Telegraph.
The National Farmers Federation backed the proposal for HECS debt relief.
"Right now agriculture is facing a dire labour shortage," NFF CEO Tony Mahar said.
"With so many Australians out of work and young people postponing international gap years, we're open to any suggestions to incentivise Aussies to take up farm roles, including reductions in HECS debts."
But National Union of Students president Molly Willmott immediately rejected the idea.
"We are not keen on the proposal," she said, adding crop pickers were often abused, underpaid and overworked.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud is understood to be actively considering the idea, although he would not comment on it specifically on Tuesday.
The Committee also recommended that for the next 12 months "the government enable workers to stay on JobSeeker payments while undertaking low paid agricultural and horticultural work".
There should also be a one-off payment to help with travel and accommodation costs.
As well, a Pacific Bubble should be created as soon as possible to attract more workers from countries such as Papua New Guinea.