The promise of a new agricultural visa open to South-East Asian nations is prompting calls for further action to prevent the exploitation of these workers.
The new visa is aimed at addressing increasing workforce shortages in the sector and will be open to 10 countries across the region before the end of the year, according to the federal government.
The announcement comes after Australia agreed to scrap a requirement for British backpackers to work on farms to extend their working holidays, under an in-principle free trade deal with the UK.
The decision is estimated to reduce Australia’s seasonal agricultural workforce by up to 10,000 UK citizens per year. The workforce has already been severely impacted by travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, unions have raised concerns that the new visa’s targeting of workers from South-East Asia will place them at greater risk of exploitation on Australian farms.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud on Wednesday stressed the benefits of the proposed visa change outweighed the inherent risk posed by unscrupulous operators.
“There has been dangerous generalisation and demonisation of Australian farmers exploiting workers,” he told reporters.
“That is not the general nature of Australian farming industry – the vast majority do the right thing.”
Unions have persistently warned of widespread underpayment and poor conditions faced by migrant workers in the sector, with the newly-proposed agriculture visa raising fresh alarm.
The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) is concerned the decision to target workers from South-East Asian nations means they could face heightened exploitation.
“What we’ve seen is the federal government setting up a new class of visa which will lead to more workers vulnerable and exploited working in our farming industry,” AWU national secretary Daniel Walton told SBS News.
“[The backpacker] program has been a centre point for exploitation for a long period of time.”
NSW and the Migrant Resource Centre this week also issued another warning over poor working conditions based on survey results from migrant workers on piece rates of payment.
Farming sector welcomes move to fill work shortages
The coronavirus pandemic has seen a severe shortage in the agricultural workforce due to border restrictions.
The number of backpackers in the country has consequently dropped from around 160,000 backpackers to under 40,000, according to the government.
National Farmers’ Federation president Fiona Simson has welcomed the prospect of bringing in more workers from South-East Asia to fill shortages on Australian farmers.
“Now is the time, the need is very obvious,” she told SBS News.
“We’ve tried everything we can do to get Australians on our farms for that seasonal work … we do need to focus and target some of these other workers.”
Under the agriculture visa arrangements, the government says participants would be able to come for three years, work for up to nine months in a one-year period and then return to their country of origin for three months.
The Nationals secured the commitment for the agriculture visa to meet the shortfall created by the change in requirements agreed to in the free-trade agreement.
Mr Littleproud said the new agriculture visa would have a growing impact as Australia establishes travel “bubbles” within the region of South-East Asia.
“We’re more than confident that there will be more than the 10,000 that will potentially lose out of the UK,” he said.
The ten countries eligible for the agricultural visa would include Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines.
Mr Littleproud added that the program would help bolster other attempts to bring in labour from Pacific nations.
“Like the Seasonal Worker Programme, the new visa arrangement will have protections to ensure workers are protected, not subject to exploitation and that the visa is not misused,” he said.
‘I’m a little jealous’
The UK-Australia free trade agreement has resulted in changes that will increase the working holiday visa age limit from 30 to 35, and give Australians and Britons a total of three years to live and work in each other’s countries.
The UK government also succeeded in removing the rule that obliges Britons on 12-month working visas in Australia to work for 88 days on farms if they wish to stay another year.
Sian Smith is a British backpacker who worked in Ayr in northern Queensland last year, picking capsicums on a farm in order to extend her visa.
Ms Smith said her experience was mostly positive but admitted she is jealous that others now won’t face the same requirement.
“I’m so glad that I did get to do it but I’m a little jealous,” she told SBS News.
“Generally speaking the farmers are great but there have been cases where they have almost treated you not with the respect that we deserve.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his UK counterpart Boris Johnson sealed their in-principle trade agreement in London this week, but the final version of the deal still needs to be signed off.