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Temporary migrant workers in Australian agriculture

by Stuart Rosewarne on February 18, 2020
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The agricultural industry throughout the world has great trouble recruiting and retaining workers drawn from the local population and has become reliant on temporary migrant workers to undertake work which is low paid and arduous. The viability of many of the industry’s branches, and especially horticultural and vegetable cultivation, harvesting and packing, is contingent on the employment of these workers. Interest in how this reliance shaped the dynamics of the industry in different locations was the subject of a collaborative research project jointly funded by the University of California Davis and the University of Sydney. Several of the papers presented at the UCD-USyd forums have now been published in a special issue of The Journal of Australian Political Economy. These papers are primarily focused on the analysis of the extent and character of temporary migrant work in Australia’s agriculture industry.

The recourse to temporary migrant workers is a relatively recent phenomenon in Australia compared with say North America, Europe or South Africa. This is in part a response to the difficulties of recruiting from local rural communities. Depopulation and the ageing of these communities has eroded a traditional source of labour, and the relatively low rates of remuneration and arduous nature of farm work discouraged younger workers from considering a career in agriculture.

While there are no definitive figures on the number of migrant workers employed in agriculture, probably half or more of the industry’s workforce is drawn from overseas, and a distinguishing feature of Australia’s temporary labour migration policies is the number of programs that successive governments has established. The most numerically significant cohorts are those who have been issued with a Working Holiday Maker visa or a Work and Holiday visa, which offer these workers the opportunity to extend their stay in Australia for up to three years if they work for a minimum time in agriculture. The Seasonal Worker Program invites Pacific Islanders to work for up to nine months, mostly in horticulture, while the Pacific Labour Scheme seeks to attract workers for low-skilled and semi-skilled occupations. The Safe Haven Enterprise visa provides refugees with employment rights in rural areas. Temporary skilled workers can be recruited under the terms of the 482 visa, and the Designated Area Migration Agreement enables the recruitment of migrants to work in a range of occupations in specified regional areas. These migrant worker cohorts are supplemented by a growing workforce of unauthorised migrant workers.  

This internationalisation of Australia’s agricultural workforce can be considered as one manifestation of a more general structural transformation of the industry. This transformation is increasingly bound up with its global reorientation. The industry is endeavouring to consolidate its standing as a food bowl for Asia and beyond, expanding exports into international markets under the aegis of free trade agreements. Agribusinesses are developing a more substantial presence and this structural shift is being reinforced by the increasing aggregation of farms, which is being underwritten by the growing interest of pension, investment and sovereign wealth funds looking to spread their risks by diversifying into agriculture. In the process, they are bidding up land values and the cost of water as it has become a tradeable commodity.

In a classic example of how the impacts of structural transformations can unfold differently across industry, the detrimental effects of increased input costs – of land and water exacerbated by the long drought – on the profitability and viability of agricultural enterprise have been particularly felt by small and medium farms. The pressures have fuelled industry calls on government to relieve labour market pressures by introducing further relief through the establishment of a designated agricultural worker visa.

This call for a more flexible migrant labour visa for agricultural work has proved to be extremely problematic because of the industry’s less-than-salubrious employment record. As is the case in agriculture across much of the world, the employment of temporary migrant workers has been darkened by a history of workers being subjected to a raft of exploitative and abusive conditions. Underpayment, wage theft, unsafe working conditions, evidence of bonded and forced labour, poor and unhygienic accommodation and exorbitant charges are prevalent.

In Australia, this is a history that has been the subject of several government inquiries, with next-to-no legislative initiatives designed to bring an end to the exploitative practices. Indeed, with the exception of labour migration programs that institutionalise these practices, the federal government has been reluctant to intervene to regulate the industry’s labour markets. In 2016 the government established the Migrant Worker Taskforce led by Allan Fels and David Cousins. They were commissioned to explore the plight of migrant workers across several industries, not just agriculture, and to develop a ‘whole of government’ approach and recommend measures to do what has not occurred to date, viz., to bring an end to exploitation and abuse. Their reflections are published in the special issue of the Journal. They conclude with the observation: “The Taskforce was able to generate new ideas and suggest both changes in policy and administrative and enforcement practices. It achieved agreement on a significant package of reforms that, if adopted (my emphasis), should have a significant impact over time of reducing under-payments.”

In March 2019, the federal government delivered its response, signalling some legislative initiatives and that it would consider or examine other recommendations, including whether wage theft should be treated as criminal offence. Yet nearly a year later, the government has still not acted, exploitative practices continue to be regularly reported, and in the meantime it has relaxed some of the regulatory oversights governing the various temporary migrant worker visas and eased some of the restrictions on the duration of their employment. The collection of articles in this latest issue of JAPE highlights the nature of the problems, some of the ways in which workers try to cope, utilising social media to alert others of their experiences. The studies also emphasise the need for greater scrutiny of employment practices and for strengthening compliance with employment standards and exposing the vested interests that continue to oppose reform.

Stuart Rosewarne
Stuart Rosewarne’s research and teaching interests are in environmental and ecological economics, critical socialist ecology, international political economy, and the political economy of gender.

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