Abolishing the scheme will be a major policy blunder
With the Australian agricultural workers visas being tied within Labor’s Pacific Region foreign policy framework, there is a danger Australia’s own domestic interests might be overlooked. Labor intends to enhance the Pacific Islands Labour Mobility Scheme (PALM), as part of a new strategic approach to the Pacific region, to counter growing Chinese influence. This appears to be a policy of exclusion to ASEAN workers, as Labor has announced during the campaign it plans to scrap the ASEAN farm workers visa program.
Australia is now facing chronic agricultural worker shortages on farms and other rural food processing industries around the country. The national Farmers Federation estimates that around 26,000 more workers are urgently needed to cover immediate shortfalls, and over 100,000 more workers over the intermediate term to enable agricultural sector growth. Australia’s food security is now under a direct threat, where the viability of local food production is facing major challenges.
The underlying issue of agricultural labour shortages was present before the Covid-19 pandemic, where Australian borders were closed off to the rest of the world, and the Russian-Ukraine war disrupted agriculture worldwide. Unlike many other parts of the world, any easing of inflation and normalisation of supply chains will not have much positive flow-on effect in Australia, if labour remains chronically short.
Under the previous government, the ASEAN farm workers visa scheme was developed to assist agricultural labour shortages in Australia. Former Agriculture, Water, and Environment Minister David Littleproud, set up the scheme in an apparent agreement with the National Party for their agreement to support the Australia-UK Free Trade Agreement.
This was an historic agreement given the long reluctance by successive governments to open the agricultural sector to Asian workers, even though this has long been accepted within professional occupations under other migration and work visa programs.
The ASEAN farm workers scheme was seen as a supplement to the Pacific Island Labour Mobility Scheme (PALM Scheme), which was based upon government-to-government agreements.
However, the governments and economies of the ASEAN nations are very different from the governments and economies of Pacific micro-nations. Pacific Island economies are not as robust and sustainable as their ASEAN counterparts and take a much more simplistic approach to the issue, such as the visa providing work for and a source of remittances for the island economies. In contrast, most of the ASEAN nations have labour shortages of their own within their agricultural sectors, and have very complex political matrixes, which led to only one country, Vietnam signing off on the agreement with Australia.
One of the major flaws of the Morrison government was the failure to perceive and understand the differences in the political dynamics of Pacific verses ASEAN countries. Consequently, Australian Foreign Affairs framed the ASEAN scheme in the same way that the Pacific Islands scheme was framed, requiring ASEAN nations to sign off on the agreement before workers from their respective countries could apply to work in Australia.
As we saw in Malaysia, the ASEAN farm workers scheme became political fodder for the government, where the deputy human resources minister Awang Hashim claimed Malaysia had its own agricultural workers shortages and own schemes for Malaysians to work on local farms, in what one would dare say, much poorer conditions. In countries like Cambodia, there was a power play between the Agricultural and Labour Ministries pertaining to which ministry would control the agreement. Consequently, the scheme was sabotaged before it could even start as it fell a victim to various local political interests.
The situation has arisen where professional, skilled, semi-skilled, and specific vocational workers from ASEAN can apply for work visas for Australia, while the poorer agricultural workers of the region are unintentionally discriminated against by the Australian scheme.
A clause 403.218.3 was inserted into the ASEAN farm worker scheme regulation which stated that applicants must be citizens of a participating country in the scheme. This has given ASEAN governments the power to veto the Australian visa scheme, something unprecedented in Australian visa practices until the Pacific Islands scheme. The scheme would have operated well without this clause, allowing a much more diverse range of workers from across the ASEAN region to participate.
The onus of worker protection would fall under existing Australian laws and regulations, where workers are screened by experience and other suitability criteria. Employment should be directly between the Australian employer and the potential employee without having to meet any ASEAN government stipulations, similar to employment in other work categories within Australia.
Labour shortages in rural Australia are so chronic, that both agreements can co-exist. The new Labor Minister for Agriculture Murray Watt and Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong need to remove clause 403.218.3 from the regulation requiring anyone applying to be a citizen of a participating country, to allow the flow of workers from all ASEAN states to apply for job positions on Australian farms and assist in alleviating the current labour shortages.
The advantage of removing clause 403.218.3 will also remove any unnecessary procedures within supply countries that could promote schemes that extort money from potential applicants, which is widespread throughout the region. This financial exploitation of foreign workers may leave many debt-ridden for many years, paying back their loans or “application” fees long after they are working in their host countries. Clause 403.218.3 promoted these types of practices.
The removal of clause 403.218.3 should eliminate an unnecessary layer in the application process. This will make it easier for both potential employer and employee.
As the Pacific Islands labour scheme has shown, this is one of the best ways Australia can engage the peoples of other nations. However, Labor’s campaign promise to scrap the ASEAN farm workers scheme would have drastic consequences for existing agricultural labour shortages. It is Labor’s intention to expand upon the existing Pacific Islanders Scheme instead. Although there is intent to use the scheme as a soft power strategy to stem Chinese influence within the Pacific region, this approach gives short shift to the crucial issue of Australia’s food security.
In addition, if the scheme takes away skilled workers from some of the smaller Pacific states, the scheme could be criticised for stripping valuable finite labour pools within those countries. This might particularly be the case with a permanent residency track coupled to the visa scheme.
Are we seeing that Labor has already become captive to Pacific leaders’ criticisms? During the election campaign, the Solomon Islands High Commissioner Robert Sisilo told the Australian media the ASEAN farm workers visa scheme would undermine the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Scheme. This could be one of Labor’s first major policy blunders.