The Americanisation of Australia’s agriculture labour market

Aug 30, 2021

Minister Littleproud will know that like their counterparts in the USA, farmers in Australia have become increasingly accustomed to using asylum seekers and the rapidly growing cohort of unsuccessful asylum seekers for cheap and easily exploitable labour.

Last week, four Commonwealth Ministers confirmed Australia will proceed with introduction of a dedicated Agriculture Visa.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke and Foreign Minister Marise Payne announced that the new visa will be run by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Surprisingly, no role has been found for Stuart Robert, the Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business whose Department currently runs the short term Seasonal Worker Programme.

This would seem to suggest the new Agriculture Visa will be for much longer stay than the nine month limit of the Seasonal Worker Programme.

Media reports indicate there will be a pathway to permanent migration but how this will work remains highly uncertain given the low skills, low pay and lack of English language skills of the proposed workers.

The Government media release says the new visa will build “on the strong outcomes from Pacific labour mobility programs”.

But the Government makes no mention of the (at least 22) people who have so far died in Australia while on these programs (most likely the tip of an iceberg of mistreatment), the substantial complaints from partner nations about their citizens being exploited, numerous media reports of exploitation or the large number of people on these programs who have now applied for asylum so they can maintain their legal status and access to work rights.

How Payne can talk about the ‘success’ of these programs is hard to fathom. She should be asked how she would define failure.

Not surprisingly, the media release makes no mention of Australia’s farm sector being the core of the biggest labour trafficking scam and abuse of our asylum system in Australia’s history. The scam is so big Minister David Littleproud has called for an immigration amnesty for these workers.

Nevertheless, the Government is determined to proceed with a dedicated Agriculture Visa.

Regulations for the new Visa are to be in place by end September 2021 subject to negotiations with partner countries.

Design will be a compromise between the long-term Pacific Mobility visa, the Seasonal Worker Program and the demands of the National Farmer’s Federation which will pressure Agriculture Minister David Littleproud for a design that closely resembles the US Agriculture Visa (H-2A)

Littleproud gushed to the media that this visa will represent a major structural reform of Australia’s Agriculture industries.

Frankly, that is a bit like saying the introduction of slavery in the US was the biggest structural reform to its cotton growing industry.

Littleproud will know that like their counterparts in the USA, farmers in Australia have become increasingly accustomed to using asylum seekers and the rapidly growing cohort of unsuccessful asylum seekers for cheap and easily exploitable labour.

These people have no powers and must accept whatever treatment is meted out to them.

Farmers will only use the new Agriculture Visa if its design makes it as easy and costless to use as employing an asylum seeker and in particular an unsuccessful asylum seeker.

US Agricultural Visa

The US Bracero program of the 1950s that held farm labourers brought to the United States in labour camps, often behind barbed wire, has been abolished. Its successor, however, the US Agricultural Visa, continues a longstanding US tradition of using migrants for cheap farm labour and treating them as sub-human.

While most US farmers use undocumented labour – estimated at around 50 percent – a substantial portion use the Agricultural Visa.

Employers using the US Agricultural Visa must specify the type of work, living conditions, and wages workers will receive. They must also provide transportation and housing. The workers enter under contracts for less than a year. They are tied to their employer which means they cannot seek work with a different employer. If they complain about exploitation or abuse, they can be legally fired and must leave the country.

From 2000 to 2017 there were 93,447 reported violations of labour law against H-2A labourers. US academic Andrew Smolski says “with anywhere between 100,000 to 200,000 H-2A labourers in the country every year, that is a minimum violation rate of one violation per every 36 labourers—and, again, that’s only what’s reported.”

Smolski (2019) considers growers violate workplace laws with impunity. The lack of funding for regulators and the focus on immigration enforcement targeting the workers rather than the employers or labour hire means it is rare for H-2A workers to step forward with complaints.

There has been a surge of farmworkers entering the United States in recent years with workers being “subjected to horrific abuse.”

While the Trump Administration generally tightened immigration policy, it made an exception for H-2A workers deeming them as “essential workers” during the pandemic.

Even with its very limited resources, the Labor Department closed 431 cases of H-2A violations in 2019, a 150 per cent increase over 2014 (Khimm and Silva 2020).

You would think the Australian Government would have learned from the US experience.

But like with most things, our Government has a preference for copying the US than learning from it.

The Americanisation of Australia’s labour market continues apace.

But we should not assume this appalling mistreatment of migrant farm workers is confined to the US. It is also common in countries such as Canada, New Zealand, the UK, Germany, Spain, Japan and Italy.

So if exploitation and abuse is just about guaranteed, why would the Morrison Government go down this path?

Because Australian farmers demand the same right to exploit and abuse as their counterparts across the developed world.



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