Opposition Take-Up Issue Of Government Ban On Malaysian’s Undertaking Farm Work In Australia – Analysis


Malaysia has been elected a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council

The Pakatan Harapan opposition has weighed into the Australian farm work visa ban announced by human resources minister M Saravanan to review his decision. PKR Salayang MP William Leong issued a press release stating the reasons minister M Saravanan gave to justify the ban were incorrect. 

Over the last few days, there has been a barrage of angry, frustration and disappointment on social media. On the FMT Facebook page, readers have been complaining about being denied the opportunity to better themselves through minister M Saravanan’s decision. The ability to work legally on farms in Australia would have allowed Malaysians to earn enough income to send home to their families to assist them during these difficult economic times. 

Local work alternatives for unskilled Malaysians include night jobs as security guards, Grab or Panda food delivery people, or working away from home on palm oil plantations for salaries little more than RM2,000 per month, hardly enough to provide for a family, in many cases an extended one.  

Figures from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection show Malaysian nationals made up the largest group of unlawful non-citizens in the country last financial year. There were nearly 10,000 Malaysians recorded as having overstayed visas in 2016-17. Enquiries found that there is a general mix of Malaysians, who have overstayed their visas, and applied for asylum in Australia on political and religious grounds. 

The Australian ASEAN farm workers visa scheme accorded both the Australian and Malaysian governments a way to eradicate a significant number of Malaysians working illegally in Australian farms under exploitive conditions. 

Australian Migration agent Robert Chelliah with branches across several ASEAN countries was contacted for his comments on the ban. Chelliah said that “The Malaysian Human Resource Minister Saravanan has missed a golden opportunity to help the Malaysian citizens by his knee jerk and short sighted decision in vetoing the Australian farm visa scheme.” 

Chelliah went on to explain that the scheme would benefit Malaysian farmers and farm workers to upskill their farming practices to learn from experienced Australian farmers on aspects of integrated pest control method, sustainable farming practices, healthy soil maintenance, agri food safety processing and packaging methods, meat and dairy food processing method. These skills are very valuable in highly competitive market and our farmers and farm workers would be well paid to acquire these modern farming techniques. The Agriculture Minister from Sabah J, Kittigan should have a say in this decision as Sabah is emerging as a strong horticulture based state. The Australian chemical free horticulture safe food production is a hallmark that Malaysians could learn a lot from.

Given the increased unemployment of Malaysians under the current Covid situation, the scheme accords a life time opportunity for some unemployed citizens, farm workers and farmers to access this visa scheme to earn as much as RM12,000 to 15,000 a month. This would enable some of the return after their short period of temporary work to return to Malaysia financially better off. 

It would appear that Malaysians are being deprived of their human right to pursue work opportunities abroad, just as Malaysia has been elected a member of the 18 seat United Nations Human Rights Council. 

MP William Leong’s full press statement is below.   

Review the Ban on Malaysians applying for Australian Farm Work Visa

I call on the Minister of Human Resources, Datuk Seri M Saravanan, to review the decision not to allow Malaysians to apply for the Australian farm work visa. By banning Malaysians from obtaining this visa, the Malaysian Government is condemning Malaysians working on Australian farms to a life of exploitation and modern slavery. 

The first reason given that the visa is not acceptable to the Malaysian Government because the Australian farm work visa is a pathway to Australian permanent residence is not correct. The Australian department of foreign affairs and trade has stated that the Australian farm work visa is not a path to permanent residence in Australia.

The farm work visa is a result of the Australian parliament committee’s findings of labour exploitation linking to visa conditions, leveraged by unscrupulous employers to exert control of migrant labour, many of whom are Malaysians. It must be stressed that while many are responsible and fair employers, the problem of migrant labour exploitation is sufficiently serious for the Australian parliament committee to investigate and recommend the introduction of the farm work visa.   

Three passages from the Parliament Committee’s report highlight the plight of the migrant labour described to be a form of modern slavery: 

  • Ms Caroline Haughey informed the Committee that exploitation can take many forms:

Labour exploitation is not as simple as just taking someone’s passport and making them work long hours. It can be further than that. It can be making them work against their will; paying them significantly less than the minimum wage; making them work in conditions that are dangerous; It can be coercive in a manner that you and I may not be familiar with now but that we find in years to come.”

  • The Committee also heard evidence from Mr Raj Thanarajah, a Melbourne-based lawyer and Mr Saifu Hasan editor of Utusan Malaysia. Mr Raj Thanarajah was alerted to the exploitation of Malaysian workers by labour hire companies which led to a media investigation. Mr Saiful Hasan went undercover to work in the Australian farms and reported on the plight of the struggling farm workers who were deceived by the syndicates:

“Based on the covert investigations conducted by the Age and Utusan Malaysia, it is known that the syndicates who lured Malaysians to work on farms promised them that, with additional payments they would have prospects of working in Australia for longer periods or even permanent residency.”  

  • Anti-Slavery Australia reported to the Committee that victims faced many barriers in reporting cases of modern slavery:

…lack of personal freedom, lack of evidence or legitimate work contracts, linguistic, cultural or social isolation, distrust and fear of government/authorities, control though debt, fear of retaliation from employers, fear of deportation or incarceration and lack of understanding of Australian workplace laws.”

One of the Committee’s recommendations to address the labour exploitation is improving visa protection. The new ASEAN farm worker visa is an employer-sponsored arrangement which is subject to an employment contract meeting specified standards and obligations. 

It is thus unfortunate that the Malaysian government has decided to ban Malaysian citizens from working in Australia under this visa without considering that its purpose is to protect Malaysian workers from being exploited in Australian farms.

The Malaysian Government appears not to be aware of the plight of Malaysians working in the Australian farms. If it is aware then it’s a callous response to its citizens’ fate. 

The second reason given for the Malaysian Government’s decision is that the Australian scheme would compete against the new government’s programme of replacing foreign plantation workers with Malaysian workers. Under the Malaysianization programme to replace foreign workers with local workers, local workers would be given an incentive of RM500 per month of their wages on a minimum wage of RM1,500 per month.  

The Government’s second reason to ban the visa is a violation of Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. Everyone, without discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

To ban Malaysians working in Australia’s farms to ensure the success of the programme for Malaysians taking over local plantation work from foreign plantation workers is oppressive. Is this the Malaysian Government’s final solution for the restructuring of ethnic based economic roles?

I urge the Minister of Human Resources to review the decision on the Australian farm work visa.

William Leong Jee Keen

MP Selayang

14th October 2021

Murray Hunter’s blog can be accessed here 

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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