Farm visas drive “chronic exploitation” of migrant workers

Another report has emerged of “chronic exploitation” of migrant workers on Australia’s farms:

Australian authorities are investigating whether dozens of workers from small, remote Fijian villages may be victims of labour exploitation after allegedly being deceptively recruited to work on farms in north-west Victoria.

…a local Victorian MP said worker exploitation was a “chronic” issue in the Sunraysia region, and that the case would not be surprising.

…several people familiar with the workers in the case told the ABC the Fijians reportedly paid roughly $FJ2,300 ($1,545) to a travel agent in Fiji who obtained tourist visas for them rather than working visas.

It’s understood some 40 people arrived in Sydney or Melbourne in small groups in August before being taken to Mildura in north-western Victoria…

AFP Detective Superintendent Jayne Crossling said authorities were investigating the case in Australia and Fiji.

“We’re aware of allegations in relation to a number of Fijian nationals, who we believe may be victims of specifically deceptive recruitment and labour exploitation,” she said…

The AFP and ABF carried out two raids in Mildura in October as part of their investigations into that group, and discovered 19 foreigners working in Australia illegally — 16 of whom were from Fiji, in addition to two Tongans and a Malaysian.

ABF said nine of them were also in Australia illegally…

This follows a litany of reports of visa exploitation across Australia’s farming sector.

Late last year, a group of academics – Joanna Howe, Alex Reilly, Stephen Clibborn, Diane van den Broek & Chris F Wright – jointly penned an article in Fairfax claiming that the exploitation of temporary migrant horticultural workers is rampant:

Australia already has more backpackers, and relies more strongly on them for horticultural work, than any country…

Unlike agricultural visas in New Zealand, Canada and the United States, and unlike Australia’s own Pacific seasonal worker program, there is no pre-approval of employers. Nor is there systematic ongoing regulation to ensure compliance with workplace laws…

Story after story after story have exposed exploitation on farms…

In 2016, the Fair Work Ombudsman completed an inquiry into Australia’s backpacker visa scheme, which found that “many backpackers are being subjected to underpayment or non-payment, unlawful deductions, sexual harassment, unsafe working conditions and other forms of exploitation”.

A scathing Senate report, entitled A National Disgrace: The Exploitation of Temporary Work Visa Holders, also documented systemic abuse of Australia’s Working Holiday Maker visa program, which was “consistently reported to suffer widespread exploitation in the Australian workforce”.

Similarly, the 2017 National Temporary Migrant Work Survey found that one in every seven temporary migrant fruit and vegetable pickers were paid $5 an hour or less, and a third $10 an hour or less.

Despite this rampant exploitation, the Morrison Government recently announced plans to grant farmers even more migrant workers through the expansion of the backpacker visa scheme to 13 additional countries, which comes on top of recent changes extending the duration of these visas to three years from two years previously.

Amazingly, farm lobby groups claim the Government’s expansion of the backpacker visa scheme doesn’t go far enough and instead have demanded a dedicated agricultural visa that would give farmers guaranteed access to even more cheap migrant labour.

Remember, farmers already have multiple avenues to employ migrant workers. In addition to the expanded backpacker visa scheme, farmers can access workers from the Pacific via: (1) the Seasonal Worker Program (SWP); and (2) the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS).

The SWP, which has grown some 40% per year, allows workers from the Pacific or Timor Leste to pick fruit and vegetables for up to six months:

Whereas the PLS, which has operated for around two years, allows Pacific Islanders to work in regional Australia in any sector for up to three years.

Given farmers can already hire SWP workers to meet their short-term needs (up to six months) and PLS workers for their long-term needs (up to three years), there is little rationale in also granting them access to a dedicated agricultural visa, especially given these proposed visas are being touted as being “more flexible” (read more open to exploitation).

Migrants are already being exploited en masse across Australia’s farms, crushing wages and working conditions. So, the last thing policy makers should do is make the situation even worse by granting easier access to cheap foreign workers.

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