By Murray Hunter

BANGKOK, Thailand--In the midst of chronic labour shortages on farms across Australia and a looming potential food crisis with rapidly rising food prices, the ASEAN farm workers visa program is finding diplomatic and political resistance on a number of fronts.

In country after country in Southeast Asia, which like Australia face their own labour shortages, government leaders are demanding that their workers stay home. 

At home, domestic labour unions are blasting the idea as exploiting workers and politicians are accusing each other of botching the scheme.

In the meantime, the Australian Food and Grocery Council has told local media that the country is suffering from a deepening supply chain crisis that is not only impacting supermarkets, with shortages of bread, milk, chicken, bottled water and soft drinks as food industry employers have faced quarantines of 25 to 60 per cent of their employees at any one time. 
It is also impacting the macro economy. Australia exports around 70 percent of the value of agricultural, fisheries and forestry production

Solving the chronic labour problems by increasing the number of Pacific islander arrivals is languishing because of COVID-19 quarantine issues. 
Supplementing farm worker numbers from the ranks of Australia’s unemployed, now at 4.6 percent, with 14.28 percent of the youth population between 15 to 24 years, is fraught with institutional and preferred lifestyle issues. 
They don’t want to work in crops. In addition, Australia’s pension system is preventing those over 65 from re-entering the workforce, despite many willing to take up jobs.

Thus, the ASEAN farm work visa would be 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.  
Last year the states of Tasmania and Victoria flew in 1,500 Pacific Island farm workers in an attempt to alleviate labour problems. 
More than 80 percent of workers in Australia’s horticultural industry, for instance, are migrants on temporary work visas (or undocumented). 
The Working Holiday Maker scheme, which provides the industry with backpackers, has been decimated by COVID-19.

Diplomatic Issues

The ASEAN farm worker visa is very different from other such arrangements. Similar to the Pacific Islands scheme, the ASEAN program was created by an amendment to the Migration Regulations 1994, with section 403.281 (a) which says any applicant must come from a participating country, under an agreement administered by the Foreign Affairs Department. 
Under other work visa schemes like the 457 sponsored temporary work visa, anybody can apply without government’s consent. 
This in effect has added another very complex layer to the visa scheme, in which the Australian government doesn’t control the outcomes.

Immigration and Border Protection under Home Affairs enlisted Foreign Affairs 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, with for example the GDP of Indonesia expected to overtake Australian GDP before the end of this decade. ASEAN nations have different geopolitical 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, with realities 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.

The Malaysian deputy resource minister Awang Hashim said in parliament on October 10 that the government would not adopt the Australian farm worker visa scheme, as it would offer permanent residence to participants. 
Malaysia, he said, has its own subsidy scheme to attract local workers to farms, as the country also faces a chronic shortage of workers as foreign workers have returned home during the Covid pandemic. 
The Australian scheme conflicts with Malaysia’s objective to reduce reliance on foreign workers in the country.

This decision met with uproar on local social media, with the parliamentary Hansard quietly changed, articles in online media either modified or pulled, with the minister claiming he was misunderstood. 
The senior resource minister M Saravanan then stated that Malaysia would not stop Malaysians from working in Australia, but failed to state whether Malaysia would ratify any agreement with Australia.

At the time of writing, Malaysia has remained silent on the Australian ASEAN farm worker scheme, with the local press silent on the issue. Malaysia has effectively shunned Australia diplomatically on the matter.

Thailand authorities have not been silent either. The Department of Labour publicly warned citizens that the ASEAN farm worker scheme had many scammers ready to fraudulently sign up locals as workers to Australia. 
The Thai Department of Labour has been silent on whether Thailand will participate.

A reliable source told Asia Sentinel that Cambodian authorities feel Australia is not enthusiastic about Cambodian participation and have consequently remained silent. 
Labour and Social Welfare Minister Khambay Khatthiya of Laos was reported in the Laotian Times last October saying her country would participate in the scheme, but to date there has been no official approval. 
Nor have there been announcements by the Australian minister to date on the intentions of the Philippines or Vietnam.

This has left many potential applicants in ASEAN countries who have been hard hit by the Covid pandemic without the opportunity to work in Australia. 
This cohort has the capacity to work across a wide spectrum of agricultural activities, with the ability to earn between A$900-1500 per week. ASEAN workers would have picked up new skills and ideas working in Australia, which would have greatly benefited their home country upon their return, amounting to a brain gain.

Political Issues

Daniel Dalton, spokesman for the Australian Workers Union (AWU), which is strongly affiliated with the Australian Labour Party (ALP) said in a channel 7 news interview that the new agriculture visa is dangerous and would pave the way for even more exploitation. 
Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) president Michelle O’Neill warned that a second-class workforce would emerge. The AWU has gone to every ASEAN embassy and high commission asking them not to support the scheme.

A group of university academics, greens, and unionists are against the visa on the grounds of potential exploitation. 
However, there have been few examples of exploitation reported to have occurred within the Pacific Island farm workers scheme, run along very similar lines.

The tragedy here for the union movement is they don’t see the opportunity to become involved in the process to assist in ensuring there is no exploitation by representing workers and bolster their membership at the same time.

Political reverberations have also hit the coalition, with National MPs accusing Liberals of obstructing the bilateral deals with ASEAN governments. 
Should the scheme collapse, there will certainly be electoral ramifications for sitting rural members in the coming federal election.

It appears the diplomatic snags associated with the ASEAN farm worker visa scheme have occurred because of either incompetence or sabotage by the Canberra bureaucracy. 
Too much trust has been put into bureaucrats who have misread the independent and complex agendas of their ASEAN counterparts.

It is time for Australian politicians to take matters into their own hands and either amend the legislation in line with other temporary work visas, or go on the diplomatic offensive to secure the agreement of at least one or two ASEAN governments to the scheme. 
This is not only urgent for Australia’s rural sector, but also the nation’s food security.