As Australia grapples with a shortage of agriculture workers, a South Korean man who has been working in the strawberry industry since 2009 faces deportation should his visa appeal be rejected.
- Ray Kim came to Australia as a backpacker and now runs a strawberry farm
- He’s appealing his declined permanent visa application because he wants to stay and work in agriculture
- The Queensland government estimates the state needs up to 9,000 seasonal workers for its agriculture sector
Sangrae Kim — who goes by the first name of Ray — first came to Australia as a backpacker on a working holiday visa, where he quickly started working on a strawberry farm near Beerwah, at the Sunshine Coast.
“The first time I jumped on the trolley to pick strawberries, I felt, ‘Oh, this is the life I wanted to go for’,” Mr Kim said.
“I love the peaceful atmosphere and nice people.”
After several years working on strawberry farms and starting a labour-hire business to introduce other workers to farms in need of staff, Mr Kim was told the first strawberry farm he had worked on in Australia was planning on ending production.
“[The farm stopping production] meaning [I could lose] my job next year … and they also [asked] me, ‘Would you like to grow strawberries?'” Mr Kim said.
“[Farm owner] Robert Barry told me, ‘I would love to teach you how to grow strawberries’ and he taught me the next year.”
Mr Kim’s experience as a chemical analyst in South Korea gave him a scientific background to assist his agricultural training.
He said it also made it easier to understand and learn how to grow strawberries.
Visa extension denied
After more than a decade living and working in regional Australia, Mr Kim has made the Sunshine Coast his home.
However, his application to stay in the country permanently on the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme has been denied.
While he says he would return to South Korea rather than outstay an expired visa, Mr Kim is appealing the decision through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
“It’s very frustrating,” Mr Kim said.
Manager of Policy and Advocacy at peak body group Growcom Richard Shannon said to be sending anyone home while the agriculture sector was crying out for workers was “ridiculous”.
“It’s crazy to be sending anyone home right now, [someone] who has established themselves in horticulture and who is filling an essential role on a Queensland farm,” Mr Shannon said.
“We need to do better than that.”
Mr Shannon said more needed to be done to encourage both domestic and international workers to join Australia’s horticulture and agriculture sector.
“It’s important to keep in mind that not only are we experiencing a critical shortage of unskilled labour, agriculture generally experiences a shortage of skilled labour. We’re always short of those workers and are desperate for more of them.”
‘Feel like an Aussie’
From working in a laboratory in South Korea to the fields of the Sunshine Coast hinterland, Mr Kim feels he has acclimated not only to the environment, but also to the culture.
“A lot of Australians say, ‘Your accent is Aussie,”” he said.
The Sunshine Coast hinterland is one of Queensland’s primary winter berry-growing regions, and Mr Kim said he felt accepted by other growers in the area.
“A lot of people don’t treat me as an Asian worker anymore, even other farmers … I’m [a] member of the strawberry association. They treat me as an Aussie as well,” Mr Kim said.
“We’re always lending something, from my farm to their farm, and I’m borrowing from their farm to my farm, helping each other and trying to surviving [with] big effort.”
A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs said the department would not comment on individual cases.
However, they said, from January 2021, additional flexibility had been added to support temporary workers in Australia who were working in agriculture.