(Australian Associated Press)
The number of working holiday-makers has soared by 20 per cent in the past year, with 43,000 young people scattered across regional centres.
The federal government expects this number to continue rising as it pursues reciprocal visa agreements with 13 countries, on top of the 44 deals already in place.
“We know there are jobs in regional Australia that aren’t being filled by Australian workers, and we are giving regional businesses the immigration settings to help them fill those roles,” Immigration Minister David Coleman said on Wednesday.
The countries engaged in talks with the government on reciprocal working holiday-maker visa arrangements include: Andorra, Brazil, Croatia, Fiji, India, Latvia, Lithuania, Mexico, Monaco, Mongolia, Philippines, Solomon Islands and Switzerland.
Changes to the program were introduced last November to help farmers in regional and rural areas seeking workers.
The changes included lifting annual caps on the visas, expanding the number of regional areas covered and allowing 12 months of work with the same agricultural employer (up from six months).
From July this year, working holiday-maker visa holders who complete six months of regional work in their second year will be eligible to stay in Australia for an additional year.
In November the government will introduce two new regional visas requiring applicants to live and work in a regional area for three years before being eligible to apply for permanent residency.
There will be 23,000 places dedicated to these regional visas.
A number of tailored migration agreements have also been put in place to address skills shortages in Orana (NSW), Warrnambool (Victoria), Kalgoorlie (WA), Cairns (Queensland), the Northern Territory and South Australia.
The program has not been without its critics.
Labor argues the deregulated working holiday-maker scheme undermines other labour mobility programs.
Unions have called for the “second year” rule to be scrapped, the number of visas to be capped and a crackdown on advertising targeting backpackers.
Visa holders have posted stories on social media, brought together under the hashtag #88daysaslave, raising concerns about exploitation and harassment.
Some have reported having worked for as little as $1 an hour to fulfil their required 88 days.
Farm groups and Nationals MPs have been arguing for an agriculture-specific visa.