There are fears that a new visa program to bring Southeast Asian workers to Australian farms could have ramifications for a willing and skilled Pacific workforce.
The Australian government is in negotiations with a number of Southeast Asian countries over its new agricultural visa, but no deal with a partner country has been finalized.
It is hoped that arrivals will be on Australian farms within a few months, but questions remain as to whether the new program is really necessary and, if so, what it means for the Pacific, for local producers. and for the workers themselves.
Professor Stephen Howes, director of the Development Policy Center, questions the need to look for workers outside the Pacific.
“While there is obviously a shortage this year, it is ludicrous to suggest that the best way to alleviate this shortage is to create a whole new visa, negotiate new deals with a whole new set of countries and recruit workers, ”he said.
“It’s obviously problematic to have two visas for two sets of different countries to do the same job.”
The existing programs’ labor pool, which includes nine Pacific island countries as well as Timor-Leste, is far from exhausted, Howes adds.
“There are a lot more workers from the Pacific who are very willing to come here, it’s not like there is a shortage.”
The new visa is available to skilled, semi-skilled and low-skilled workers in a wide range of agricultural industries, including meat processing, fishing and forestry, according to the federal government.
“The Pacific programs will remain the main plan to deal with labor shortages, especially in this summer harvest season,” a government backgrounder dated September 30 said.
More than 15,600 workers from the Pacific and Timor are currently in Australia and the government has pledged to double that number by March 2022.
There are also 55,000 shortlisted Pacific workers ready to come to Australia, subject to available quarantine places.
The federal government stresses that the new visa program aims to secure the sector to which it will have access to workers in the future.
“This is in addition to existing visa pathways, including the Pacific programs, and ensures our primary industries can access the unskilled and skilled labor they need in the future,” Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said.
The first phase of the new visa will be limited to a small number of employers already accredited through the Pacific programs.
Phase two, starting in April 2022, will see a steady increase in the number of workers recruited and participating countries.
The new visa comes as the requirement for UK backpackers to work 88 days in regional areas if they wish to extend their stay is being phased out, raising fears of a seasonal labor shortage.
Cotton Australia Managing Director Adam Kay said about 80% of the more than 400 applicants seeking employment through the Cotton Jobs Australia platform over a five week period do not hold an Australian passport, which means they may be ineligible or may not be able to start working immediately.
“We appreciate the government’s efforts in the Pacific, but there are still short- and medium-term needs that need to be addressed to help farmers,” Kay said.
However, Mark Zirnsak, senior social justice advocate for uniting the Australian Church with Victoria and Tasmania, sees no evidence of a shortage of workers in the Pacific.
Zirnsak has been involved with the Pacific Seasonal Worker Program since 2014 and says the pandemic has prevented newcomers from returning home, forcing them to live off their savings.
“Among the workers with whom we are in contact, there is a very large part who lack work,” he says.
“There is a question mark over (if) we need this farm visa at all, and while that can be done, our argument (is) that the details of the guarantees must be made public before we start to bring in workers.
“A lot of detail is missing and… given that you have at least 55,000 Pacific workers willing and able to come, what’s the rush?”
All workers have the same rights and protections regardless of their citizenship or visa status, and these will also apply to workers on the Australian farm visa, according to the federal government.
But Howes says there are strategic and economic reasons not to expand the potential labor pool outside the Pacific.
Unlike countries with large populations and developing or established manufacturing and tourism industries, Pacific countries are generally isolated, remote and do not have the same employment opportunities.
“They need these labor mobility opportunities a lot more,” Howes says.
There are also concerns about the exploitation of foreign workers, an issue that some believe needs to be addressed as a matter of priority.
The mayor of Bundaberg, in the agricultural center of Queensland, wants a royal commission on the treatment of foreign workers “to cut off competing interests without bias and to make recommendations that pave the way forward.”
“Most farmers are doing the right thing, but there are concerns that insecure labor hire companies are leading a race to the bottom,” says Jack Dempsey.
Australian Associated Press