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Potential food crisis, prices rise: farm workers needed

By Murray Hunter - posted Thursday, 13 January 2022

In the midst of chronic labour shortages on farms across the nation, and a potential food crisis looming, where food prices are rapidly rising, the ASEAN farm workers visa is finding diplomatic and political resistance on a number of fronts.

Solving these chronic problems by increasing the number of Pacific Islander arrivals languishes because of Covid quarantine issues. Supplementing farm worker numbers from the ranks of the unemployed, now at 4.6 percent, with 14.28 percent of the youth population between 15 to 24 years unemployed, is thwart with institutional and preferred lifestyle issues. In addition, Australia's pension system is preventing those over 65 from re-entering the workforce, when there are many willing to take up jobs. Thus, the ASEAN farm worker visa is the best immediate short-term solution.

The scheme is not only vital for the primary sector to relieve chronic shortages in farming, harvesting, processing, and packing labour, but also critical to maintain Australia's food supply chain to urban areas.


Diplomatic Issues

The ASEAN farm worker visa is very different from other work visas. Similar to the Pacific Islands scheme, the ASEAN farm worker visa was created by an amendment to the Migration Regulations 1994, section 403.281 (a) which says any applicant must come from a participating country, under an agreement administrated by the Foreign Affairs Department. Thus, the ASEAN farm worker visa is different from other work visas like the 457 sponsored temporary work visa, where anybody can apply without the need of their government to consent to the application.

This in effect has added another very complex layer to the visa scheme, where the Australian government doesn't control the outcomes.

Immigration and Border Protection under Home Affairs enlisted Foreign Affairs to negotiate participation agreements with each ASEAN nation for the purposes of facilitating the new visa. This replicated the Pacific Islands Scheme. The bureaucrats in Canberra assumed that making participation agreements with ASEAN governments would be just as straightforward as it was with the Pacific nations governments.

The Pacific nations being much smaller than their ASEAN counterparts, have much more restricted sources of income and were very open to the Australian initiative. However, ASEAN nations are much larger – for example the GDP of Indonesia is expected to overtake Australia's GDP before the end of this decade. ASEAN nations have different geo-political views of the world to Australia, and some countries like Malaysia and Vietnam have chronic labour shortages of their own. It's obvious here that Canberra's apparatchiks didn't consider these differences, but realities are now setting in very quickly.

Australia rightfully gave preference to Indonesia, the closest and most populous nation in the region. However, after a number of rounds of talks, including ministerial, Indonesia has still not signed any agreement with Australia.


The Malaysian deputy resource minister, Awang Hashim, said in Parliament on 10th October that the government would not adopt the Australian farm worker visa scheme, as it would offer permanent residence to participants. Awang further stated that Malaysia has its own subsidy scheme to attract local workers to farms, as that country was also facing a chronic shortage of workers, due to foreign workers in the sector returning home during the Covid pandemic. The Australian scheme conflicts with Malaysia's objective to reduce its reliance on foreign workers.

This decision met with uproar on local social media. The parliamentary Hansard was quietly changed and articles in online media either modified or pulled, with the minister claiming he was misunderstood. The senior resource minister, M Saravanan, then stated that Malaysia would not stop Malaysians from working in Australia, but failed to state whether Malaysia would ratify any agreement with Australia.

At the time of writing, Malaysia has remained silent on the Australian ASEAN farm worker scheme, with the local press practising self-censorship over the issue. Malaysia has effectively shunned Australia diplomatically on the issue.

Thailand authorities have not been silent on the issue either. The Department of Labour publicly warned citizens that the ASEAN farm worker scheme had many scammers ready to fraudulently sign up locals as workers to Australia. The Thai Department of Labour has been silent on whether Thailand will participate in the Australian scheme.

The writer has been advised from a reliable source that the Cambodian authorities feel Australia is not enthusiastic about Cambodian participation and has consequently remained silent on the issue.

Labour and Social Welfare Minister Khambay Khatthiya of Laos was reported by the Laotian Times last October as saying that her country would participate in the scheme, but to date Laos has not given any official approval.

There have been no announcements by the Australian minister to date on the intentions of the Philippines or Vietnam.

This has left many potential applicants in ASEAN countries who have been hard hit by the Covid pandemic without the opportunity to work in Australia. This cohort has the capacity to work across a wide spectrum of agricultural activities, with the ability to earn between AUD 900-1500 per week. ASEAN workers would have picked up new skills and ideas working in Australia, which would have greatly benefitted their home country upon their return, amounting to a brain gain.

Political Issues

Daniel Dalton, spokesman for the Australian Workers Union (AWU), which is strongly affiliated with the Australian Labor Party (ALP) said in a Channel 7 News interview that the new agriculture visa is dangerous and will pave a way for even more exploitation. Further, Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) president Michelle O'Neill warned that a second class workforce would occur from the visa. The AWU has gone to every ASEAN embassy and high commission asking them not to support the visa scheme.

A group of university academics, greens, and unionists are against the visa on the grounds of potential exploitation. However, there have been few examples of exploitation reported to have occurred within the Pacific Island farm workers scheme, run along very similar lines.

The tragedy here for the union movement is they don't see the opportunity to become involved in the process, helping to ensure there is no exploitation by representing workers and bolstering their membership at the same time.

Political reverberations have also hit the coalition, where National MPs have accused Liberals of obstructing the bilateral deals with ASEAN governments. Should the scheme collapse, there will certainly be electoral ramifications for sitting rural members in the coming federal election.

It appears the diplomatic snags associated with the ASEAN farm worker visa scheme have occurred because of either incompetence or sabotage by the Canberra bureaucracy. Too much trust has been put in faceless bureaucrats who have misread the independent and complex agendas of their ASEAN counterparts.

It's time for Australian politicians to take matters into their own hands and either amend 403.281 (a) in line with other temporary work visas, or go on the diplomatic offensive to secure the agreement of at least one or two ASEAN governments to the scheme. This is not only urgent for Australia's rural sector, but also the nation's food security.

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
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Murray Hunter’s blog can be accessed here

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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