The risks and rewards of the new agricultural visa scheme

| July 21, 2021

After years of resisting pressure from the Australian National Party and the farm lobby to create an agriculture visa, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has at last relented. A new agriculture visa for workers from ASEAN nations is currently being negotiated. Applications will likely start from November 2021 or early in 2022, subject to vaccination take-up in ASEAN countries.

The pressure to create such a visa has existed for decades. But after seeing the problems created by a visa of the same name in the United States (H2A) — and similar visas in Europe and the Gulf states — the Department of Immigration did not want Australia to become a low-skill guest worker society.

That principle of Australian immigration policy was abandoned with the seasonal worker visa — the first Australian temporary visa dedicated to low-skill work, which was fully implemented from 2010 after a brief trial period. In May 2021, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke also announced overseas students could work full time in the tourism and hospitality industry, making Australia’s student visa essentially a low-skill work visa.

The main problems with low-skill guest worker visas are well known to immigration officials around the world. Workers face extreme levels of exploitation and abuse, high occupational health and safety risks and racism. Low pay and poor conditions can also undermine the job opportunities of unemployed locals with few post-secondary skills.

Government officials are aware that the farm lobby expects a visa design that is substantially more streamlined than the existing seasonal worker visa for low-skilled workers from the Pacific Islands and East Timor. The farm lobby will press for changes to the seasonal worker visa to reduce its protections and shift more of the cost burden from employers to workers but it will still be less attractive to employers than the proposed agriculture visa.

The farm lobby may be willing to accept protections for workers that do not involve significant costs to employers, such as an English language testing requirement paid for by visa applicants. English language skills provide a small degree of protection in terms of occupational health and safety risks — such as being able to read warning labels on farm chemicals and machinery — and give workers greater negotiating power. English language skills also help employers communicate with visa holders.

Employers will insist that workers cover the costs of travel to, from and within Australia, as is the case with working holiday visas. Reports of employers forcing workers to pay inflated charges for accommodation are common and need to be addressed.

The opportunities of the agriculture visa are likely to attract labour-hire companies. Experience both in Australia and overseas shows that the involvement of labour-hire companies leads to greater exploitation. Strong regulations for both labour-hire companies and employers who are permitted to employ agriculture visa holders are essential.

The government should disqualify employers who have exploited workers or used undocumented labour — including unsuccessful asylum seekers — from employing agriculture visa holders.

This may help put downward pressure on the massive labour trafficking scam of providing farm workers under the guise of asylum applications. The government should also exclude employers who have had a large number of complaints lodged against them with the Fair Work Ombudsman.

Employers using ‘piece rates’ as a means of underpaying workers have been an ongoing problem. There would be merit in amending Australia’s labour laws to require employers to pay either the minimum hourly wage or piece rates, whichever is higher in all instances. This may also push more Australians to take up farm work opportunities.

Each agriculture visa holder should receive a detailed briefing on what they should expect on arrival in Australia, how best to manage travel and accommodation arrangements and how to lodge a complaint.

The costs of these arrangements should be met by an industry levy on all employers using the agriculture visa with charges based on the costs of resolving complaints against each employer. This would provide an incentive for employers to resolve issues with their workers before they escalate.

A tripartite industry, union and government body should be established to deal with complaints (the Fair Work Ombudsman is already overloaded) and given the power to prosecute employers and labour-hire companies in breach of labour laws. The tripartite body can provide regular reports to each ASEAN country to reassure them that their citizens are not being exploited.

Encouraging agriculture visa holders to join a suitable union before travelling to Australia would provide an added layer of protection and support. The union membership fees should be paid from the wages of workers after arrival in Australia. There should also be a detailed independent review of the agriculture visa 12 months after it comes into operation.

This article was published by the East Asia Forum.

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