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AMID chronic labour shortages on farms across the nation, and a potential food crisis looming, where food prices are rapidly rising, the Asean farm workers visa is finding diplomatic and political resistance on a number of fronts.

Solving these chronic problems by increasing the number of Pacific islander arrivals is languishing because of Covid quarantine issues. Supplementing farm worker numbers from the ranks of the unemployed, now at 4.6%, with 14.28% of the youth population between 15 and 24 years is thwart with institutional and preferred lifestyle issues. In addition, Australia’s pension system is preventing those over 65 from re-entering the workforce, where there are many willing to take up jobs.

Hence, the Asean farm work visa is the best immediate short-term solution.

The scheme is not only vital for the primary sector to relieve chronic shortages in farming, harvesting, processing and packing labour, but also critical to maintain Australia’s food supply chain to urban areas.

Diplomatic issues

The Asean farm worker visa is very different from other work visas. Similar to the Pacific Islands scheme, the Asean farm worker visa was created by an amendment to the Migration Regulations 1994, with section 403.281(a) that says any applicant must come from a participating country, under an agreement administrated by the Foreign Affairs Department. Hence, the Asean farm work visa is very different from other work visas like the 457 sponsored temporary work visa, where anybody can apply without the need of their government to consent to the application.

This in effect has added another very complex layer to the visa scheme, where the Australian government doesn’t control the outcomes.

Immigration and Border Protection under the Home Ministry enlisted Foreign Ministry to negotiate participation agreements with each Asean nation for the purposes of facilitating the new visa. This replicated the Pacific Islands Scheme. The bureaucrats in Canberra assumed that making participation agreements with Asean governments would be just as straightforward as it was with the Pacific nation governments.

The Pacific nations being much smaller than their Asean counterparts, have much more restricted sources of income and were very open to the Australian initiative. However, Asean nations are much larger, where for example Indonesia’s gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to overtake the Australian GDP before the end of this decade. Asean nations have different geo-political views of the world to Australia, and some countries like Malaysia and Vietnam have chronic labour shortages of their own. It’s obvious here that the Canberra’s apparatchiks didn’t consider these differences, where realities are now setting in very quickly.

Australia rightfully gave preference to Indonesia, the closest and most populous nation in the region. However, after a number of rounds of talks, including ministerial, Indonesia has still not signed any agreement with Australia.


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