Over many years we have witnessed a conga-line of evidence showing that temporary migrants have been ruthlessly exploited on Australia’s farms, which has frequently been labelled “modern slavery”.
In March the federal government also released a 327-page report from the National Agricultural Labour Advisory Committee (NALAC), 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 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.
Importantly, NALAC also 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.
Instead of following NALAC’s advice, the Morrison Government is seeking to boost low-wage farm immigration via its brand new Agricultural Visa, which will now offer a pathway to permanent residency for workers from 10 South-East Asian nations: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam:
Australia’s long-awaited agriculture visa will offer temporary foreign workers in the sector a pathway to permanent residency for the first time, in a significant shake-up of the nation’s migration program…
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the visa would create a “huge structural shift” in the sector’s workforce that would boost investment confidence.
“This is about the next generation of migrants who will build regional Australia,” he said.
“We want to build these jobs in regional Australia and build the population and capacity of regional Australia with these jobs. So the pathway to permanent residency is an exciting tool.”
The new visa will be extended beyond horticulture to provide extra workers for the meat processing, fisheries and forestry sectors. It will start on September 30 and apply to skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers for a three-year period. Workers who wish to commit to working beyond three years in the sectors would be given a route to permanent residency.
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 and ultimately wages.
However, if farm are continuously given access to cheap, exploitable migrants, then wages will remain low, there will be little incentive to automate, the capital base will shallow, and ultimately productivity will stagnate.
Sadly, instead of weaning the horticultural industry off migrant slave labour, the Morrison Government has instead doubled down and imbedded the low wage immigration model into regional Australia.
The outcome will be the polar opposite of the recommendations from the NALAC report 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.