ABUL RIZVI. An Agricultural Visa Would Change Australian Society – for the Worse

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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6 Responses to ABUL RIZVI. An Agricultural Visa Would Change Australian Society – for the Worse

  1. Kevin Bain says:

    Hi Abul, I’m not suggesting we have better Australian politicians, but anticipating and accommodating policy slippage is self-fulfilling. Where will lowest common denominator policies take us? The NZ outcome is better, does anyone know why?

    The real story here is multiple regulatory and political failure – either incompetence or subornation by vested interests. The article says “government was unwilling to invest adequately in enforcing Australian labour laws.” No doubt the recent UTS report estimating a $1 billion wage theft is unpalatable news to govt and business, but if govt officials can’t or won’t find strategies they enable the worst of the US system, while stifling consumer demand in country areas.Isn’t it obvious that if Qld workplace regulators cannot minimise worker deaths then get some who can, rather than shut down the widely supported seasonal worker program.

    The discontent from the govts of Island states is a bad sign – stronger economies in the Pacific Island states can help them resist being political vassals to Australia or China. Instead of trying to turn Australian urban unemployed into fruit pickers, isn’t urban demand for low skill labour on the rise, providing a more viable approach for locals.

    Most commenters recite their ethical, legal and behavioural certainties, and I think it was the late Michael Gordon who said there was too much advocacy and not enough analysis in the refugee space, which also applies here. There needs to be more from practitioners and experienced analysts, so I am very glad for your contributions. I like the economist Paul Collier who’s controversial, but works hard to ground his perspective on rigorous research, and tests conventional and counter-intuitive propositions.

    • Abul Rizvi says:

      Hi Kevin, I dont advocate shutting down the Seasonal Worker visa. Now that it is in place, that would be very difficult. But i do worry that Morrison has announced changes to the visa that shift some of the cost burden from the employers to the workers; changes to make the visa “more flexible” and to make it into a 9 month visa. All this before we have an adequate understanding of whether the 14 deaths to date were indeed just bad luck.

      The direction of the changes is clear – less protection of the workers. Yet the NFF is still not happy. I fear the next changes to this visa, especially if numbers are to grow, will take us further towards the US Agricultural visa.

      I hope i am wrong but i fear i may not be.

      • Kevin Bain says:

        Where is the modernday Cesar Chavez? Active unionism not government benevolence is the structural answer.

  2. Kevin Bain says:

    This is a pessimistic view of the development potential of a guest worker scheme, pandering to Australia’s institutional limitations as well as those within the supplier states. Giving up on reform because there are weak politicians and urgers from lobby groups doesn’t help much and guarantees sending us down the permissive American path. Aren’t finding ways to address rogue employers and brokers what Australian policy people are there for?

    The SBS article referenced suggests NZ has dealt better with much larger numbers of seasonal Pacific Islanders with fewer deaths. Separately from the European holidaymakers, it says there are only 6000 seasonal workers, presumably from the Pacific Island states, why can’t we have a lot more? Proximity is a strong argument for prioritising these states. Are there other viable and credible plans to enable the economies of these states to underwrite their political aspirations?

    If exploitation and abuse can be dealt with, it’s hard to see why enlightened govts in both Australia and the country of origin can’t find ways to marshall the capital injection and skills of workers now with their foot on the bottom rung of the ladder. The 9 billion dollars in direct remittances from overseas workers to rural families in Indonesia for example, is not regarded as trivial by a recent WB report https://www.indonesia-investments.com/news/news-columns/world-bank-report-on-indonesian-migrant-workers/item8387?

    It would be good if the author could point to a fuller argument of his slippery slope argument of why the Americanisation of the Australia labour market is the inevitable end product of an ag visa. Despite serial failures, a regulatory culture has more support here and shouldn’t be as difficult as banking for instance.

    • Abul RIzvi says:

      Hi Kevin, You may be right that unlike most other developed nations, we will always have politicians with greater courage and principle to resist the charms of business lobbiests. You may be right that our versions of such visas will have far fewer deaths and exploitation because our govt will invest in worker protection paid for by the relevant employers. But are we prepared to take that risk? The consequences for Australian society are significant. Undoing such visas once in place would not be easy. No other nation seems to have been able to?

  3. Kien Choong says:

    Hi, I currently live in Malaysia and come across many foreign workers from Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Myanmar, Bhutan and Iran. Perhaps some of them do not have legal work permits. And in an ideal world, all residents in Malaysia would be treated equally, and given an opportunity to remain in Malaysia indefinitely, even with voting rights.

    On the other hand, I am glad that Malaysians (on the whole) do welcome foreign workers. As far as I can tell, foreign workers seem happy with their opportunity to find work in Malaysia, and relations between Malaysians and foreign workers, while not perfect, seem fine enough.

    It’s true that some Malaysians compete for jobs with foreign workers; however, my impression is that most Malaysians have been able to find jobs that require skills or levels of education that foreign workers do not have. It doesn’t seem to be the case that unemployment among Malaysians is higher than it would otherwise be if foreign workers were not present in Malaysia.

    I would argue that Australia would be making a tangible contribution to improving the lives of people in emerging and low-income countries if Australia did allow temporary migrants to work in Australia. Not all migrants will want to remain permanently in Australia. But those who do should be allowed to apply for permanent residence, and certainly their children who grow up in Australia ought to be granted citizenship.

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