August 24, 2021

MALA DARMADI, HOST: Details of how the scheme will work are scarce at the moment, but already there is concerns it could undermine the Pacific Seasonal Worker Programme which has brought thousands of workers from the region to work on Australia’s farms and horticulture sector.

Pat Conroy is Australia’s Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific and joins me now down the line. Firstly, this new agricultural visa is being pitched by the Government as a structural approach to solving Australia’s labour shortage, but what is your reaction to this visa?

PAT CONROY, SHADOW MINISTER FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND THE PACIFIC: I’m very worried about this visa. I think this visa has the huge potential to undermine both the Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme. These are critical elements of the Pacific Step Up and they are critical to the long-term economic future of the Pacific, and both of them will be undermined by an agricultural visa that’s a massive victory for the National Party at the expense of our broader national interest.

DARMADI: Now over the past year we have seen Pacific countries ramp up the number of workers they’re sending to Australia. Is this move going to see those gains lost because of this new visa?

CONROY: Absolutely. The Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has already said that this visa won’t have the protections that the Seasonal Worker Programme has. That means that farmers, particularly unscrupulous farmers, are going to choose to source labour from the agricultural visa countries rather than using the Seasonal Worker Programme. So that will lead to exploitation of people from ASEAN countries, and will deny that huge economic opportunity for Pacific workers.

DARMADI: Now on that particular thing, the Government’s Pacific Step Up, is this potentially seen as a backwards step in that it’s not really in the interests of the Pacific and has gained a lot of reaction from the Pacific itself?

CONROY: I’ve met with many diplomats from Pacific Island nations and they are really worried about the impact of this. The Pacific Labour Scheme, and in particular the Seasonal Worker Programme, are critical parts of the Pacific Step Up. They are critical ways that Australia can partner with the Pacific Island region for their economic development. The money being sent home from Pacific Island workers makes a massive difference to the lives of them, their families, and their broader community, and that is all being undermined by the agricultural visa.

DARMADI: And it was something that you touched on before, but one of the big, I would say, concerns of this potential visa that is meant to replace the holiday and backpacker visa is that it’s open to the high exploitation of workers. In your mind, what safeguards need to be built into this new visa to potentially prevent that exploitation?

CONROY: Well at a minimum, it should have the same safeguards that the Seasonal Worker Programme has. That’s something that the Government has said won’t apply, and I am worried that both the combination of lower protections and secondly the carrot of permanent residency that this program offers means that workers will be exploited either because they’ve got less protections, or quite frankly because they decide it’s worth three years of exploitation and misery to try and get permanent residency in Australia.

So it needs to be as safe and as protected as the Seasonal Worker Programme. But to be quite frank, the broader issue here is that we should be sourcing our seasonal work and our agriculture work from the Pacific. These Pacific nations are critical partners of ours. We want to be the partner of choice into that region. It’s a region where a third of the community live on less than US $1.90 a day. We should be sourcing our workers from that region, not from middle income countries such as Singapore and Malaysia. So there’s a fundamental philosophical issue as well as the broader issues around safeguards and protections.

DARMADI: Well one of the issues as well is that this particular visa, although the information is quite scarce, one of its key points is that it potentially opens the way for permanent residency. Now in your mind, does this potentially seem a bit unfair as the Pacific seasonal workers don’t have the same access or potentially the same option as is given in this new visa?

CONROY: Yeah well it smacks of double standards. If we are going to have a worker from Tonga or Vanuatu on an Australian farm under the Seasonal Worker Programme and they’ve got no pathway to permanent residency, why is it fair for someone from Singapore or Malaysia? So that’s one point, and then there’s the broader point around the exploitation, the combination of lower protections and the ability for employers to dangle the carrot of permanent residency potentially driving these workers to be exploited.

So there are real inconsistencies with this agricultural visa. It’s not coherent. It undermines the key diplomatic initiative of Australia, and it just represents a victory for Barnaby Joyce and the National Party over Foreign Minister Marise Payne in the Cabinet. It’s a move that Julie Bishop fought very successfully when she was Foreign Minister, and it’s clear that Marise Payne lost the arm wrestle in Cabinet, and Australia’s national interest, our standing in the Pacific, and the economic potential in the Pacific have all suffered as a result.

DARMADI: If you’re just tuning in, you’re listening to Pat Conroy, Australian Opposition politician and Shadow Minister for Pacific and International Development. Now while the Pacific Seasonal Worker Scheme has often been praised by growers, participants, and the Government more broadly, we do hear complaints about its high maintenance and heavy regulation and it is a bit unwieldy some people do say. In your mind, with the conversations around the new ag visa, is it time for the Seasonal Worker Scheme and the Seasonal Worker Programme to potentially look at reform?

CONROY: There are things that can be done to make it have less red tape and to make it more attractive to employers, absolutely. There’s a review going on right now by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Education. So there are definite improvements that can be done to make it more attractive, but there are other things that will need to be improved around compliance and the use of labour hire to crack down on the unfortunate cases of exploitation that will occur. Like the instances of labour hire companies exploiting workers, packing them into rental accommodation and charging outrageous rents is something else that needs to be worked on.

So it’s not a one way street of just reducing red tape. We need to make sure that the regulatory burden is appropriate, but ultimately that employers can access the scheme easily. Because when I meet with farmers, they make the point that they love the Seasonal Worker Programme because unlike for example backpacker visas, the workers from the Pacific are there to do a job, they work hard, they earn income which they send back to their homes in the Pacific, and they’re very motivated. Whereas with the backpacker visa – and I fear the agricultural visa – they’ll be mainly motivated by either having a holiday in the country or getting a pathway to permanent residency.

DARMADI: Now, there are talks that this potential agricultural visa will be in motion from September which is only mere days away, but an issue which is being faced currently is of course quarantine and quarantining workers. There’s a limited space for thousands of Australians who want to return home. Should these problems potentially be looked at first before they think of bringing thousands of workers from, you know, ASEAN countries or whichever countries are signed up to the program under this new agricultural visa?

CONROY: Well the Australian Government has failed to establish a national quarantine system to handle the COVID crisis, and that’s obviously why we’ve got the massive Delta outbreak in Australia right now. And they have also failed to get tens of thousands of Australians home which should be a key priority, but we also have to recognise that farmers do face significant workforce shortages. But farming groups and State Governments have been working with Pacific Island nations to accelerate the number of Pacific Island workers that are coming across, and I think about 5,000 are due in the next few months.

So my view is that we should be prioritising bringing Australians home safely and prioritising Pacific Island workers entering under the Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme, because those schemes – albeit with a few flaws – are working. They’re providing good workers for our farms. They’re providing good training and experience for Pacific Island workers, and they’re providing strong streams of income back to Pacific Island nations that have been devastated by COVID, and that should be our priority rather than helping implement an agricultural visa for countries like Singapore and Malaysia.

DARMADI: Now Pat Conroy, where to from here though? It looks like the wheels are turning for this agricultural visa. It doesn’t look like there’s much turning back. So you know in the position you are, what kind of assurances or what would you like to tell Pacific Island nations who are looking upon what is happening now with a bit of fear and uncertainty about what it means for their people and for the Pacific in terms of the Pacific Seasonal Workers Scheme?

CONROY: What I can say to Pacific Island workers and the Pacific Island communities is that the Australian Labor Party - the alternative government – will be closely scrutinising this scheme. We will be trying to make sure that it does not undermine the Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme. And I want to assure the Pacific Island nations that the Labor Party remains committed to the Pacific Step Up, that we see the Seasonal Worker Program and the PLS as key parts of that Step Up, and that should we form the next government, we will be closely examining all of these arrangements to make sure the Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme are the key programs to deal with workforce shortages in the agricultural industry and as key ways of economic advancement for Pacific Island nations. The Labor Party is really committed to the Pacific and will be holding the Government to account for their failures in that area.

DARMADI: Pat Conroy, thank you so much for your time and for joining Pacific Beat this morning.

CONROY: Thank you, have a great morning.