New visa for migrant farm workers could boost exploitation

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The introduction of an agricultural visa will not end the abuse and exploitation of vulnerable migrant workers, writes Abul Rizvi.

WITH the appalling exploitation of migrant farm workers in Australia and around the world, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement of a farm visa is a necessary distraction for the government and the farm lobby to argue that the situation in Australia will be different.

This distraction is a supposed route to permanent residence. Apparently having such a path will somehow reduce exploitation and abuse.

During the Senate Supplementary Budget hearing in October 2021, the Home Office (DHA) indicated that at this point it did not have details on the path to permanent residence for holders of an agricultural visa, even if the regulations for the agricultural visa itself are already in force. place.

DHA said:

“The government is committed to exploring options for a route to farm visa permanence, and this will be developed in due course.”

Note the use of the words “explore options” and “in due course”. Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes Minister the celebrity would be proud.

DHA knows that the expanded Pacific Island Seasonal Worker Visa and Farm Visa will boost exploitation, even with the recent Fair Work Commission decision to require farm workers to be paid a minimum hourly wage.

Therefore, DHA does not accept any political responsibility for either visa.

But let’s take a look at how a route to permanent residence for agricultural visa holders could be crafted, noting the government’s decision that there will be no such route for seasonal workers in the Pacific Islands or for the massive number of applicants. asylum seeker working on farms.

This political decision in itself raises serious problems.

Denying a pathway to permanent residence for seasonal workers in the Pacific Islands who will often work alongside agricultural visa holders violate the principle of non-discrimination of the permanent migration program?

This may not be a problem, as the Morrison government has already abandoned this principle.

The possible route to permanent residence for agricultural visa holders should be through the skills stream – there is no family or humanitarian basis for such a route.

The long-standing skills visa policy focuses on applicants with equivalent post-secondary qualifications in Australia, adequate English skills and generally under the age of 45. Usually, a minimum level of relevant qualified work experience is also required.

It is highly unlikely that holders of agricultural visas will meet these requirements, even at very diluted levels, especially for any variant of the qualified self-employed category.

Holders of an agricultural visa would not even meet the minimum requirements to file an expression of interest in the skills selection system.

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They would also find it difficult to meet the requirements of any variant of a visa designated by a state or territory or any business migration visa.

It is possible that the DHA could design a version of the Regional Employer Sponsored Interim Visa (subclass 494), but this should be without any requirement for post-secondary qualifications or English proficiency.

Assuming the government is prepared to do this, how many years would a farm visa holder have to work for an employer before that employer is ready to sponsor them?

Would labor hire companies that are likely to be major users of the agricultural visa be allowed to sponsor workers for permanent residence?

Note that labor hire companies are a common factor in the abuse of migrant farm workers around the world.

And once a farm visa holder has been sponsored for an employer-sponsored interim visa, how long must he stay on that employer-sponsored visa before being granted permanent residence? Would the minimum period of work in Regional Australia earning a minimum wage required by the subclass 494 visa also be removed or reduced?

If there is an argument that holidaymakers working 88 days are required to work in regional Australia exposes them to exploitation and abuse, what are the risks of exploitation and abuse associated with having to work? with an employer in regional Australia for many years in order to gain permanent residence?

No wonder DHA is struggling to develop a path to permanent residency for holders of agricultural visas.

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The reality is that despite the government, the farm lobby and some academics continue to argue that Australia can avoid the well-known problems with low-skilled guest worker visas. Even seasonal workers in the heavily regulated Pacific Islands (PISW) face high levels of exploitation.

In addition to the 25 deaths of these workers the government has reported to date, there has been an increase in the number of these workers who have fled their employers. More than 1,000 workers have fled in the past 12 months, although farmers have said they cannot find farm workers.

If there is such a shortage of farm labor and the farmers and the farm lobby insist that they treat these workers well, why are so many people running away?

In addition, since January 2020, more than 682 citizens of Tonga have applied for asylum, 398 from Timor and 233 from Vanuatu. They would know that their candidacy will have almost zero chance of success. Nevertheless, they consider that it is better to seek asylum than to stay with their current employer.

Source: Processing of protection visas ashore

Finally, there are reports of PISW organizing a class action lawsuit to recover unpaid wages and wage theft.

If PISW workers were treated as well as the government, associate academics, and the farm lobby, would we really see so many of these workers run away and seek asylum?

Would they even consider a class action lawsuit against wage theft?

With plans for a much larger PISW program in the future – some academics argue for a 100,000-a-year program – plus an agricultural visa once international borders reopen, it now seems inevitable that Australia will join the many countries. of the world where the exploitation and abuse of low-skilled guest workers is just a normal part of the economy and society.

The idea that a path to permanent residence would in any way reduce this risk should be raised because it is: a thought bubble and a distraction.

Dr Abul Rizvi is an independent Australian columnist and former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration. You can follow Abul on Twitter @RizviAbul.

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