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Ag Community Awaits Updated PALM Scheme Guidelines

Imminent changes to the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme are continuing to concern the farming community as we await Labor’s release of the new PALM guidelines.

Last year’s Federal Budget updated the laws around the PALM scheme, implementing a minimum standard that the horticulture industry has labelled as “unworkable”, and providing better conditions than domestic labourers receive.

New Rules Surround PALM Scheme

Under the new laws, workers in the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme must receive 30 hours of work per week averaged over four weeks, rather than over the time of their placement, and from July 1 2024, must receive 30 hours of work per week.

The Hon David Littleproud MP, Shadow Agriculture Minister, said in early February that farmers were anxiously awaiting Labor’s release of the new guidelines. He noted that there were serious inconsistencies with industrial relations rules when it comes to ‘stand down’ guidelines, making the PALM scheme more expensive for employers.

“Australian workers are occasionally ‘stood down’ temporarily as part of their enterprise agreement (EA) and because of this, they can be paid a higher hourly rate,” Mr Littleproud said.

“This is common in places such as abattoirs when there is no stock or if a processing plant requires maintenance. So Australian and migrant workers aren’t paid during a stand down because they can earn the higher hourly rate to cover them.

“On the other hand, new guidelines for PALM workers indicate they must be paid regardless of a stand down. The oversight means that PALM workers risk receiving greater conditions, i.e. pay, than Australian and migrant workers performing the same job in the same scenario.”

Farmers Feeling the Labour Shortage Pinch

The new PALM scheme laws have hit agriculture in the middle of historic labour shortages, adding expense to an already difficult task.

The Land spoke with a producer who was feeling the strain – David Caslick, who runs a mixed enterprise on the 445-hectare Melrose, Willow Tree. Mr Caslick Gandhis daughter Sarah’s property runs 550 Santa Gertrudis/Angus breeders and crops wheat and canola. But it is their 1800-head Merino sheep operation that has suffered, with the two of them working alongside their 2IC.

“We do whatever tasks the three of us can manage ourselves, but many of the husbandry sheep tasks need a team of contractors and we have struggled to get them together,” Mr Caslick said.

Mr Caslick said he believes the labour shortage issue is a big one and the closure of agricultural colleges across New South Wales has directly impacted on this.

Weather Adds to Horticultural Staffing Woes

A lack of flexibility within the PALM scheme changes means that inclement or unpredictable weather is now a double-whammy for the horticultural industry.

Agronomist, committee member of the Australian Blueberry Growers Association, and farm manager at Smart Berries, Sally Jolly explained to the ABC that with unpredictable weather patterns staff planning and guaranteed hours per week is difficult.

“It’s an essential and important connection that we have between the growers and the employees so they can earn enough to take home to their own families, and the whole point of it is trying to get these guys in a better position than where they currently are.”

Executive officer to the National Farmers Federation (NFF) Horticulture Council, Richard Shannon, said he was concerned the changes would bring about a decreased interest in the scheme.

“It’s going to be fewer workers from the Pacific in Australia earning money, fewer of our employers using it, and I think it’s a massive shame,” Mr Shannon said.

New PALM Guidelines Still on the Horizon

The new PALM scheme guidelines were expected to be released by the Government in February 2024, but have still not hit the public’s eyes.

Sources: ABC, The Land [Paywall], The Hon David Littleproud MP Leader of The Nationals Shadow Agriculture Minister

Image: Al Mabin, Agrishots

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