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Potential food crisis, prices rise: farm workers needed

By Murray Hunter - posted Thursday, 13 January 2022

In the midst of chronic labour shortages on farms across the nation, and a potential food crisis looming, where food prices are rapidly rising, the ASEAN farm workers visa is finding diplomatic and political resistance on a number of fronts.

Solving these chronic problems by increasing the number of Pacific Islander arrivals languishes because of Covid quarantine issues. Supplementing farm worker numbers from the ranks of the unemployed, now at 4.6 percent, with 14.28 percent of the youth population between 15 to 24 years unemployed, is thwart with institutional and preferred lifestyle issues. In addition, Australia's pension system is preventing those over 65 from re-entering the workforce, when there are many willing to take up jobs. Thus, the ASEAN farm worker visa is the best immediate short-term solution.

The scheme is not only vital for the primary sector to relieve chronic shortages in farming, harvesting, processing, and packing labour, but also critical to maintain Australia's food supply chain to urban areas.


Diplomatic Issues

The ASEAN farm worker visa is very different from other work visas. Similar to the Pacific Islands scheme, the ASEAN farm worker visa was created by an amendment to the Migration Regulations 1994, section 403.281 (a) which says any applicant must come from a participating country, under an agreement administrated by the Foreign Affairs Department. Thus, the ASEAN farm worker visa is different from other work visas like the 457 sponsored temporary work visa, where anybody can apply without the need of their government to consent to the application.

This in effect has added another very complex layer to the visa scheme, where the Australian government doesn't control the outcomes.

Immigration and Border Protection under Home Affairs enlisted Foreign Affairs to negotiate participation agreements with each ASEAN nation for the purposes of facilitating the new visa. This replicated the Pacific Islands Scheme. The bureaucrats in Canberra assumed that making participation agreements with ASEAN governments would be just as straightforward as it was with the Pacific nations governments.

The Pacific nations being much smaller than their ASEAN counterparts, have much more restricted sources of income and were very open to the Australian initiative. However, ASEAN nations are much larger – for example the GDP of Indonesia is expected to overtake Australia's GDP before the end of this decade. ASEAN nations have different geo-political views of the world to Australia, and some countries like Malaysia and Vietnam have chronic labour shortages of their own. It's obvious here that Canberra's apparatchiks didn't consider these differences, but realities are now setting in very quickly.

Australia rightfully gave preference to Indonesia, the closest and most populous nation in the region. However, after a number of rounds of talks, including ministerial, Indonesia has still not signed any agreement with Australia.


The Malaysian deputy resource minister, Awang Hashim, said in Parliament on 10th October that the government would not adopt the Australian farm worker visa scheme, as it would offer permanent residence to participants. Awang further stated that Malaysia has its own subsidy scheme to attract local workers to farms, as that country was also facing a chronic shortage of workers, due to foreign workers in the sector returning home during the Covid pandemic. The Australian scheme conflicts with Malaysia's objective to reduce its reliance on foreign workers.

This decision met with uproar on local social media. The parliamentary Hansard was quietly changed and articles in online media either modified or pulled, with the minister claiming he was misunderstood. The senior resource minister, M Saravanan, then stated that Malaysia would not stop Malaysians from working in Australia, but failed to state whether Malaysia would ratify any agreement with Australia.

At the time of writing, Malaysia has remained silent on the Australian ASEAN farm worker scheme, with the local press practising self-censorship over the issue. Malaysia has effectively shunned Australia diplomatically on the issue.

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
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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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