In March the federal government released a 327-page report from the National Agricultural Labour Advisory Committee, which explicitly admitted that the agricultural industry’s overreliance on cheap migrant labour is bad for productivity and unsustainable:
Australia’s main competitors in agriculture are either ahead or running very close. In many ways, Australia is at a crossroads. Either its enterprises go all out to modernise by learning and adopting new methods, or they fall behind the others, occupying increasingly uncomfortable niches, relying on inadequately trained, low productivity workers, using the same old approaches that worked yesterday, and then finding themselves in a situation where business as usual has suddenly turned into business in decline…
The report explicitly noted that the Working Holiday Maker (WHM) scheme, which enables farms to employ backpackers, is regularly abused and rife with exploitation, and recommended strengthening regulations and standards up to the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) scheme. It also called for better regulation of labour hire companies.
Most importantly, the report rejected the industry’s call for a dedicated agricultural visa:
Most of the arguments put forward to justify an agriculture-specific visa can be addressed through improvements and adjustments to existing visa programs so as to address the segmentation issues identified in Section 7.1. Significant effort has already been made to design and tailor these programs, and building on this work will deliver quicker and better results than starting afresh…
A holistic approach should be taken to streamline and make consistent the settings of current temporary migrant visas, whether under the Seasonal Worker Programme, the Pacific Labour Scheme or the Working Holiday Maker program.
With this background in mind, it was disturbing to read yesterday that the Morrison Government is about to give farmers a dedicated agricultural visa so that they can more easily hire foreign workers:
The deputy leader of the National Party says it has reached a deal with Prime Minister Scott Morrison that would see more foreigners come to Australia to work on farms.
David Littleproud confirmed an agreement has been reached and hinted that an agriculture-specific visa could soon be announced…
Mr Littleproud says his party had done a deal that would increase the number of workers available on farms.
“The National Party has already got an agreement from the Prime Minister to… build on the capacity of seasonal workers that are required”…
Responding to Mr Littleproud’s comments, president of the Victorian Farmers Federation Emma Germano said an agriculture-specific visa was overdue and nothing less could satisfy growers…
“An extension to the Pacific Labor Scheme or Seasonal Worker Programme is not an agriculture visa and does not meet agriculture’s needs”.
The new visa is expected to be announced shortly and will enable farmers to recruit farm workers from 10 South-East Asian nations: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam:
The visa scheme, the details of which are yet to be finalised, is planned to be in operation by September, when harvesting begins, and would be additional to the Pacific Island labour scheme which has a pool of 25,000 workers willing to undertake seasonal work in Australia.
Easier access will also be granted to UK working holiday makers under the newly signed free trade agreement.
Therefore, instead of weaning the horticultural industry off migrant slave labour, the Morrison Government is instead going to double down. This despite the conga-line of evidence showing that temporary migrants have been ruthlessly exploited on Australia’s farms, which has frequently been labelled “modern slavery”.
For years, MB has challenged farmers’ over-reliance on cheap, exploitable migrant workers, arguing that it contributes to lower wage growth, as well as stifles Australia’s long-run productivity by discouraging farms from adopting labour-saving technologies and automation.
Put another way, without such easy access to low-paid migrants, farms would be forced to raise wages to attract local workers. These higher wages would, in turn, encourage farms to seek out labour-saving technologies and automation, thereby raising the economy’s productivity.
With Australia’s border closed and the foreign worker tap shut off, we have already witnessed multiple examples of Australian farms undertaking productivity-enhancing investments in labour saving technologies, thus proving our case.
Obviously, the Morrison Government’s decision to give farmers easier access to cheap, exploitable migrants will undermine future investment by keeping wages artificially low, reducing incentives to automate.
The outcome will be the polar opposite of the recommendations from the National Agricultural Labour Advisory Committee above, which wants to see farmers “go all out to modernise by learning and adopting new methods”. Instead, the expansion of “inadequately trained, low productivity workers” will dilute the capital base and cause farm productivity to stagnate.
The whole exploitative visa system needs to be overhauled, not expanded by the slave driving Morrison Government.