The Australian government is currently finalizing the details of a new temporary visa for agricultural workers. Proponents hope the visa will address labor shortages in the sector. But a new article in The Conversation argues “it’s a risky approach that could lead to more exploitation of low-skilled farmworkers.”
What is driving this agricultural visa overhaul?
The Australian agricultural sector relies on temporary visa holders for labor. Until now, many of these foreign laborers have been “backpackers” who work for three months as a means of getting their visa extended. Others are from the Pacific Island nations and Timor-Leste and rely on employer sponsorship for full-time work on farms.
As a result of the new Australia-United Kingdom Free Trade Agreement, British travelers will no longer have to carry out 88 days of work on Australian farms to extend their visa duration. This change will likely reduce the sector’s workforce by around 10,000 laborers per year. Although farmers in Australia have been lobbying for changes to current visa schemes for decades, this trade deal has acted as a catalyst for the visa overhaul.
To address the expected labor shortages, the new visa will allow employers in the farming, fishery, forestry and meat-processing industries to hire workers from other countries. Indonesia will likely be the first country to join the list, with other Southeast Asian countries to follow.
How could the changes worsen the exploitation of migrant workers?
Henry Sherrell and Brendan Coates from the Australian think tank the Grattan Institute raise questions around the implications of this shift on migrant worker protection in their article in The Conversation. Although standard workplace laws will still apply, Coates and Sherrell point out that enforcing migrant workers’ rights in the Australian agricultural sector has proved challenging in the past.
Multiple factors influence the vulnerability of migrant agricultural laborers to exploitation. Firstly, they often work in remote locations. When this isolation is combined with low salaries and a system which ties workers to their sponsors, it becomes difficult for workers to flee should they end up with an exploitative employer. Moreover, migrant workers may have poor English language skills, making it difficult for them to understand and advocate for their rights.
The Pacific work visas previously fell under two schemes: the ‘Seasonal Worker Programme’ and the ‘Pacific Labour Scheme’. These programs required employers to provide a minimum number of work hours at a set rate, along with accommodation and pastoral support. However, these schemes are also undergoing changes.
The Seasonal Worker Program and Pacific Labour Schemes are being rolled into a single scheme – the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme – that the federal government is promising will cut red tape and improve worker protections. But critics are not confident the changes will address the loopholes that facilitate exploitation.
The same concerns also apply to workers recruited under the new agricultural visa. Why would the results be any different for a new visa with fewer protections?
Sherrell and Coates call for the Morrison government to take a step back and reconsider its strategy for addressing labor shortages. They end their article stating: “As it stands this dedicated visa for agricultural workers risks opening a Pandora’s box that will prove impossible to close.”