A plan to allow agricultural workers to be recruited from 10 South-East Asian countries is “economically boneheaded” and will pose a major threat to wage growth, a union has warned.
The new visa scheme aims to address an upcoming shortfall of UK backpacker farm workers by allowing workers from South-East Asia to work on Australian farms.
As part of the UK-Australia free trade agreement announced on Tuesday, UK backpackers will no longer be required to carry out 88 days of farm work in order to extend their visas.
The end of the farm work requirement for UK backpackers is estimated to trigger a 10,000 farm worker shortfall, or around one quarter of the workforce.
Workers from Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, and Brunei Darussalam are included in the new South-East Asia visa scheme.
The Australian Government brokered the South-East Asia deal in a bid to ensure farmers still have enough workers to harvest their crops, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud confirmed on Wednesday.
However, the Australian Workers Union (AWU) has described the South-East Asian scheme as a “free pass” for farmers to underpay workers.
"Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson have decided it's wrong for Brits to be exposed to exploitation and abuse on Australian farms, but apparently it's okay for Southeast Asians," AWU national secretary Daniel Walton said on Wednesday.
"Johnson rightly told Morrison he needed to scrap the 88-day requirement for Brits to work on Australian farms, because they were being routinely exploited and abused.
“They're not alone — citizens from Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Germany, and many others have raised similar concerns. But now David Littleproud is telling Southeast Asians to come on down for the same treatment. It's shameless, stupid, and immoral.”
He said the labour shortfall on farms could be addressed by luring Australian workers with adequate wages and protections.
Workers paid $9 a day on Aussie farms
As it stands, young workers on Australian farms can be paid as little as $9 a day, a study conducted by Unions NSW and the Migrant Workers Centre revealed on Tuesday.
The study found nearly 80 per cent of farm workers have been underpaid, especially those who are paid based on the number of fruit or vegetables they harvest.
Some workers on grape and zucchini farms are paid less than $1 an hour.
"Aside from the humanity, this is also economically boneheaded. At a time when we desperately need to be putting upward pressure on Australian wages, the government decides to introduce a scheme that allows one sector to aggressively drive down the pay that should be circulating in regional economies,” Walton said.
"Much of the labour shortfall on farms could be made up quickly by providing Australian-standard wages and protections.
“Where there are still gaps, programs like the Pacific Labour Scheme and the Seasonal Worker Program are much better than simply opening the gates to vulnerable Southeast Asian workers without adequate rights and protections."