The Abbott government is being urged to introduce a migration program for “economically challenged” areas, including South Australia and Tasmania, to boost population growth and revive regional towns.
A proposal being pushed by several industry groups would allow states and regions with entrenched below-average economic performance to take semi-skilled foreign workers to meet labour shortages and stimulate growth.
Independent South Australian senator Nick Xenophon will introduce legislation to change the Migration Act after parliament resumes next month.
Initial modelling suggests the new zones could attract about 40,000 additional economic migrants and create between 1.3 and 1.6 jobs for every job filled.
Agricultural groups say the proposal could also apply to regional areas struggling to fill vacancies under existing migration programs that do not allow for semi-skilled workers.
National Farmers Federation manager of workplace relations Sarah McKinnon said the 457 visa program and the seasonal worker program used by backpackers did not accommodate semi-skilled workers. Without an agriculture-related degree, foreign workers are ineligible for 457-visa sponsorship by a farm employer.
“Across industry there is a need for this particular level of skill that we can’t always find in the local labour market and there is no visa that provides for it,” she said.
The push has also been backed by business groups in South Australia, where unemployment is at a national high of 8.2 per cent, and is being considered by the Tasmanian Liberal government. Both states could qualify under the low-growth criteria being advocated.
Migration consultant Mark Glazbrook, who has commissioned economic modelling of the potential stimulus of targeted migration, said more than 20 industry groups supported the move.
He said weak population growth in smaller states and regional areas created the need for more flexible migration to cater for “economically challenged” areas.
The combined population growth of Tasmania, South Australia, the ACT and the Northern Territory is about half the growth of Western Australia.
Peak horticultural growers’ group Ausveg said the challenge would be to identify a migration zone that covered regional areas most in need. “Many farms struggle to find labour, it is a huge concern for industry that they don’t have access to that labour force to harvest the fruit and vegetables that we consume,” Ausveg deputy chief executive Andrew White said.
Senator Xenophon said the program would help address the jobs crisis facing South Australia, where unemployment is at a 15-year high.
“This program will be a win-win for struggling areas of the nation — boosting the local economy and boosting jobs in the process,” he said.
National Baking Industry of Australia’s business development manager Mark Dennien welcomed proposed changes provided workers met language and skills standards.
He said many regional bakeries struggled to attract and retain apprentices, with a dropout rate of up to 60 per cent.
“The industry is in a bit of a decline … Bakers in small towns get to the point where they can’t grow and some of them die.”