ISSN 2330-717X

Australia’s New ASEAN Farm Worker Visa Hits Snags – Analysis

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The necessary amendments to immigration legislation to enable ASEAN skilled, semi-skilled, and un-skilled farm workers to be employed on Australian farms was ratified by the Governor General last week. Now workers from participating ASEAN countries are able to enter into employment agreements with Australian farmers.

Although the legislation is enacted, there are still many unsettled details about precisely how the new visa will work. Obtaining labour is critical to much of Australia’s farm industry, which is suffering severe shortages, particularly around harvest times. Seasonal workers from the United Kingdom have dried up due to border closures during the pandemic, and local urban unemployed cannot be attracted to farms for this seasonal work. 

There has been a lot of criticism of this new visa, primarily over the potential avenues of exploitation that may occur to workers. The union movement is also concerned that Asian farm workers would depress wage levels, while state health authorities have been concerned about the logistics of quarantine. 

The ASEAN farm worker scheme is only intended as a supplement to the Pacific Australian Labour Mobility Scheme (PALM Scheme), which has brough 15,600 Pacific Island and Timor Leste workers to Australia. Of this number, 12,000 have arrived in Australia since September last year. Over the next year, this figure will be doubled.

However, there are an additional 55,000 screened workers in the Pacific able to come to Australia for work. Pacific Island governments are also critical of the ASEAN scheme as they see the scheme taking potential jobs of the existing Pacific Islands labour pool waiting to come.

The first cohort of workers is expected to arrive in Australia during December 2021 and March 2022. This will be subject to international borders and the settling of quarantine issues. This is still a logistical problem unsolved, where farmers have suggested on farm-site quarantine arrangements. Although quarantine is a federal responsibility, states have been operating the logistics since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Visa hits snags in Malaysia and Cambodia

The new ASEAN farm worker visa is an employer sponsored arrangement, which is subject to an employment contract meeting specified standards and obligations. However, the Malaysia government for the first time has decided to ban Malaysian citizens from working in Australian under this visa. 

Malaysian deputy human resources minister Awang Hashim told the senate last week that Malaysia would not participate in the scheme. Senator Awang declared that the Australian visa is a pathway to permanent residence, and thus not acceptable to the Malaysian government. 

In addition, the Australian scheme would compete against the new Malaysian government program of replacing foreign plantation workers with Malaysian workers. Under the Malaysianization program, local workers would be eligible to receive an incentive of RM500 or 20 per cent per month of their wage, based on an RM1,500 minimum wage per month. 

Malaysians have long travelled to Australia to work, often illegally on Australian farms, earning approximately RM 12,000 per month, the majority being Chinese and Indian. With accommodation, often provided by farmers, most are able to return home with savings, which appears more lucrative to working on a palm oil plantation for RM2,000, under hard living conditions. 

In addition to claiming the Australian farm worker visa would lead to permanent residence, Senator Awang claimed that both Australian and Malaysian work is dirty, dangerous, and difficult. However, according to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australian farm jobs must meet existing occupational health and safety standards, and this visa doesn’t have any path to regional settlement or permanent residence. 

Australian farm work is the only overseas work Malaysians have been stopped from engaging. Malaysians are free to work in primary industries in neighbouring Singapore, Brunei, Taiwan, Thailand, and Indonesia. 

There has been a backlash against Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) Minister of human resources Saravanan Murugan on social media, with some claiming they have been robbed of a lifetime opportunity because of an irrational decision on the Australian visa. 

Malaysia is not the only country putting impediments in the way of local workers coming to Australia on the farm work visa. The ministry of labour and vocational training in Cambodia has indicated that it would want to control worker outflow to Australia. The insertion in Australian legislation of the phrase “participating country” rather than citizens of ASEAN countries has allowed ASEAN bureaucracies to add an additional tier of red tape to farm workers coming to Australia to work. This has been shown not to always be in the farm workers interests. A network of unscrupulous middle-people are springing up in ASEAN countries to exploit potential visa applicants. 

In effect, ASEAN bureaucracies have put a dent in what could have been a win-win situation for Australian farmers and ASEAN farm workers, many suffering from under-employment due to the pandemic. 

Murray Hunter’s blog can be accessed here 

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Murray Hunter

Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. As an entrepreneur he was involved in numerous start-ups, developing a lot of patented technology, where one of his enterprises was listed in 1992 as the 5th fastest going company on the BRW/Price Waterhouse Fast100 list in Australia. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, spending a lot of time consulting to Asian governments on community development and village biotechnology, both at the strategic level and “on the ground”. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and regular speaker at conferences and workshops in the region. Murray is the author of a number of books, numerous research and conceptual papers in referred journals, and commentator on the issues of entrepreneurship, development, and politics in a number of magazines and online news sites around the world. Murray takes a trans-disciplinary view of issues and events, trying to relate this to the enrichment and empowerment of people in the region.

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