Article by: Hari Yellina (Orchard Tech)
After years of resisting pressure from the Australian National Party and the farm lobby to create an agriculture visa, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has at last relented. A new agriculture visa for workers from ASEAN nations is currently being negotiated. Applications will likely start from November 2021 or early in 2022, subject to vaccination take-up in ASEAN countries.
The pressure to create such a visa has existed for decades. But after seeing the problems created by a visa of the same name in the United States (H2A) — and similar visas in Europe and the Gulf states — the Department of Immigration did not want Australia to become a low-skill guest worker society.
That principle of Australian immigration policy was abandoned with the seasonal worker visa — the first Australian temporary visa dedicated to low-skill work, which was fully implemented from 2010 after a brief trial period. In May 2021, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke also announced overseas students could work full time in the tourism and hospitality industry, making Australia’s student visa essentially a low-skill work visa.
The main problems with low-skill guest worker visas are well known to immigration officials around the world. Workers face extreme levels of exploitation and abuse, high occupational health and safety risks and racism. Low pay and poor conditions can also undermine the job opportunities of unemployed locals with few post-secondary skills.
Government officials are aware that the farm lobby expects a visa design that is substantially more streamlined than the existing seasonal worker visa for low-skilled workers from the Pacific Islands and East Timor. The farm lobby will press for changes to the seasonal worker visa to reduce its protections and shift more of the cost burden from employers to workers but it will still be less attractive to employers than the proposed agriculture visa.
The farm lobby may be willing to accept protections for workers that do not involve significant costs to employers, such as an English language testing requirement paid for by visa applicants. English language skills provide a small degree of protection in terms of occupational health and safety risks — such as being able to read warning labels on farm chemicals and machinery — and give workers greater negotiating power. English language skills also help employers communicate with visa holders.