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Australia opens the gate for ASEAN agricultural workers

By Murray Hunter - posted Friday, 9 July 2021

To the surprise of many, the Australian government announced it was planning to create a seasonal farm work visa for ASEAN farm workers, very soon. The minister for agriculture David Littleproud, announced the new seasonal visa was the result of negotiations with the UK, where it was agreed UK backpackers would no longer be required to work part of their time in Australia doing agricultural work. The minister in his statement said that the new visa was the result of the prime minister Scott Morrison agreeing to the visa, in exchange for National Party support for the Australia-UK Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

Even though the national unemployment rate stands at 5.5 percent, with youth unemployment out at 10.5 percent, with the Reserve Bank of Australia warning unemployment is likely to worsen, rural Australia’s most pressing problem is a chronic shortage of labour. There are around 200,000 job vacancies in rural Australia, with few locals willing to fill them. There is a visa quota for up to 25,000 Pacific Island workers under the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS), but only 12,000 places have been taken up. With the absence of British backpackers, there is a lose of another 10,000 workers, a problem exasperated by the closing of the Australian border since March, last year.

This is a historical announcement, given successive government administrations over decades, had been reluctant to open the agriculture sector for Asian workers, in such an overt and formal manner. Arguments that Asian workers will take Australian jobs, have fallen away to the chronic rural labour shortage.


The new visa scheme, which supplements the Pacific Labour Scheme, if implemented correctly, will not just assist rural Australia, but have positive impacts in the workers’ source countries. Many workers within the ASEAN block, have been retrenched, or are grossly under-employed, with dependents. The incidence of poverty is growing within the ASEAN region, where for example up to two million tourism industry workers, who originate from rural areas, lost their jobs when Thailand closed the borders to international tourism last year. Although, the new Australian agricultural worker scheme may only have a quota for up to 20,000 workers, this will provide some assistance to a scattering of rural villages across the ASEAN region.

In principle, the new ASEAN agriculture worker visa will allow a person to work in rural Australia for nine months of the year, and return home for three months, for a three or four year visa validity.

Although the new visa has been applauded by ASEAN stakeholders, the proposed scheme is not without its critics in Australia. National Farmers Federation president Fiona Simson, is sceptical the program will roll out quick enough, and notes that the cabinet still has many details to work out and agree to. Governing coalition MPs are split on the new scheme. There is some doubt whether agriculture minister David Littleproud has much caucus support for his proposal, and may not have enough support to get final approval by cabinet. Some Pacific Island officials are weary, the ASEAN scheme may undermine the Pacific Islands scheme, saying with more relaxed criteria, there are still another 12,000 Pacific workers wanting to come. Finally, some farmers claim that the scheme may actually force the rise of fruit and vegetable prices to consumers.

If the government gives the scheme the go-ahead, while there are still more than 100,000 Australian citizens awaiting to come back home, ASEAN workers arriving in the country, while some Australian citizens are finding it difficult, could very easily lead to a political backlash.

Workers within the ASEAN region have long travelled to other countries for work. This is a major foreign exchange earner for the Philippines. There are an estimated two million foreign workers in Malaysia from most ASEAN countries, plus south Asian nations. Over the last 15 years Thailand, as well as exporting workers, has become a popular destination for workers from neighbouring countries.

Workers travel to other countries to work, bot legally and illegally. There is a large industry of manpower agencies, agents, and work supervisors who profit from this industry. The industry is poorly regulated and not standardized as to recruitment practices, procedures, and fee structures. The industry is full of exploitation by agencies and employers.


According to the Global Slavery Index 2018 annual report, most foreign workers are burdened with ‘debt bondage’, within the domestic, retail, construction, manufacturing, and primary sectors. Commonly, workers from Nepal, Thailand, Myanmar, and other countries are forced to borrow upward of US$2,000 at interest rates of 48 percent plus, taking years to pay back. Workers were reported as working 10 hours per day without overtime, being paid below the legal pay rates. Workers’ passports were held by employers and their salaries withheld during the last three months of their contract, to “settle any outstanding matters.”

It isn’t just the debt burden. Foreign workers are often forced to work in horrid, sub-standard, dangerous conditions, with temperatures soaring into the 40s C. Their living conditions are often cramped and overcapacity, with employers deducting around 20 percent of wages to pay for food and accommodation. They are often not paid what was agreed in their home countries.

According to a media investigation, companies such as Samsung and Panasonic are facing allegations that they have exploited and underpaid their foreign workers. The US Government has just lifted sanctions that it imposed last year on two Malaysian glove manufacturers, WRP and Top Glove, suspected of forced labor and overtime, debt bondage, withholding wages, and holding workers’ passports.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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