An agricultural visa would change Australian society – for the worse

Nov 14, 2018

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has, for the time being, rejected creation of an agricultural visa in favour of changes to the existing working holiday maker program and the seasonal worker visa (see here). These are unlikely to satisfy demands of the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) for an agricultural visa. While most Australians would see this as a marginal issue, they should not. An agricultural visa has the potential to take us down a very slippery slope if the experience of other nations with such visas is any guide.

Unlike the USA, Canada, a range of countries in Europe as well as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Australia has generally avoided creation of a low skill temporary work visa that specifically targets people from low wage countries to undertake low paid work that Australians, including unemployed Australians with no post-school qualifications, would prefer not to do. While we have a range of temporary visas that provide work rights that enable low skill work (eg students and working holiday makers), the primary purpose of these visas is not low skill work, although this is changing for the working holiday maker visa.

Most of our long-term temporary visas have, until recently, had relatively open pathways to permanent migration. This has helped to feed our permanent migration program with young, skilled migrants rather than create a long-term temporary resident underclass as in other countries.

But in 2009, government created the seasonal worker visa – a low skill temporary visa that targets low skill workers from low wage countries to do low pay agricultural work. It has had very strong regulatory controls to minimise the risk of worker exploitation. Despite this, to date some 14 people on this visa have died (see here). While some argue this is just bad luck, the governments of the countries the workers came from have expressed serious concerns (see here). They do not see these deaths as just bad luck.

From 1995 to 2007, I was extensively involved in running Australia’s migration and temporary arrangements. During this time, we regularly received representations from a range of industries and prominent Australians to create temporary work visas for all manner of low skill and low paid work, including fruit picking. We were generally able to avoid this by expanding the working holiday maker program, eventually including a provision to encourage working holiday makers to spend a minimum amount of time working in the agricultural sector (which itself has been criticised as increasing the risk of exploitation).

We resisted creation of dedicated low skill temporary work visas for a number of reasons.

A key concern was creation of such visas would reduce pressure on various industries to look for innovative ways to provide employment opportunities for unemployed Australians with no post-school qualifications or to invest in greater automation that would increase productivity – crucial to long-term per capita economic growth. Our view was that creation of low skill temporary visas meant abandoning unemployed Australians without post-school qualifications – the very group of people governments must do more to assist into employment.

As is the case to this day, unemployment amongst low skill Australians is very significantly higher than for Australians with trade and tertiary qualifications. Yet we focus so-called ‘labour market testing’, a mechanism with a much lauded objective but one that has little practical effect, on the filling of high skill positions from overseas – the very positions that don’t need such protection.

We were also concerned about the high risk of exploitation and overstay, especially as government was unwilling to invest adequately in enforcing Australian labour laws and the difficulties of following up overstayers.

Most importantly, however, we were concerned creation of a visa such as the seasonal work visa would eventually lead to two major pressures.

Firstly, we were concerned that while it may be possible initially to set up such a visa with strong regulatory protections to minimise the risk of exploitation, pressure to unwind such regulations would eventually emerge. Most industry lobby groups have a strong record of convincing governments to reduce ‘business red tape’ and to underfund regulatory agencies.

This was very much the case in the early years of the current Coalition government which crowed about how many business regulations it had abolished. In more recent years, and in light of the Banking Royal Commission, etc, the government does not crow about this as much. However, no one should doubt that industry lobby groups will return to lobbying for less ‘business red tape’.

Industry will press for less regulation, more ‘flexibility’ and less cost (for employers rather than for the workers) associated with any agricultural visa compared to the existing seasonal worker visa. This would not just increase the risk of exploitation but would also increase costs that must be met by workers relative to the costs met by employers.

Our second concern was that once the precedent of a low skill temporary visa from low wage countries had been created, there would be little to stop other industry bodies from convincing government of the merits of a similar visa for their industry. Think of truck drivers, security guards, nannies, hotel maids, gardeners. In terms of the industries that approached us, the list goes on.

The lobbying for such visas would no doubt refer to the ‘development assistance’ dimensions of such visas. We would be told the unskilled temporary workers would earn so much that they could remit large amounts of money back home! While that may be the case initially, we all know where that story ends.

The governments of the countries from which these workers come would control who applies for the visas – with the attendant high risk of corruption and kick-backs. And employers would continue to look for ways to minimise costs and payments. There is then the cut for labour agents and middlemen that would further whittle down any ‘development assistance’ value.

The USA provides excellent guidance on where we would end up as they have had a low skill agricultural visa, and other low skill temporary visas, for decades. The Trump Administration is currently pursuing legislative change to significantly ‘streamline’ its existing low skill agricultural visas (see here). This is despite extensive research that describes these guest worker visas in the USA as ‘close to slavery’ (see here).

These low skill temporary visa workers are of course in addition to the over 10 million undocumented migrants in the USA who are subject to on-going exploitation. Note in Australia we too have a substantial population of undocumented migrants working in the agricultural and other industries but not of the magnitude of the USA.

Eventual creation of an agricultural visa and similar low skill, low pay temporary visas, as in so many other nations, would seem inevitable for Australia.

As the number of people on such low skill temporary visas grows, Australian society would become less egalitarian and less tolerant. We would see creation of an underclass of low skill temporary residents who have limited chances of becoming permanent residents. Our children would grow up with an attitude that only guest workers from low wage countries do the dirty, dangerous low paid jobs. Their attitudes to such people would harden.

It would increase the ‘americanisation’ of the Australian labour market and of Australian society. All Australians should be worried by this.

Abul Rizvi was a senior official in the Department of Immigration from the early 1990s to 2007 when he left as Deputy Secretary. He was awarded the Public Service Medal and the Centenary Medal for services to development and implementation of immigration policy, including in particular the reshaping of Australia’s intake to focus on skilled migration. He is currently doing a PhD on Australia’s immigration policies.

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