As the pandemic and a new free-trade deal with the UK is amplifying labor shortages in Australia’s US$51 billion-a-year agriculture industry, the country is looking to recruit Southeast Asian farm workers. Its government aims to offer three-year working visas by the end of the year to citizens from the 10 ASEAN countries, which include Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday. Australia already has a similar arrangement in place with Pacific Island nations.
As labor shortages remain and are set to get worse under Australia’s new free-trade agreement that Prime Minister Scott Morrison inked in London on Tuesday with counterpart Boris Johnson, under the deal, backpackers from the UK will no longer need to work in the agriculture industry to fulfill visa requirements. That could reduce the number working on Australian farms by a further 10,000 a year.
Meanwhile, a lack of dedicated quarantine facilities has meant only 7,000 workers from the ten Pacific nations are currently in Australia, even though that visa program allows for 25,000 arrivals.
“We’ve been smashed by Covid-19,” Littleproud said. The new ASEAN visa program “sets the parameters, creates the environment now for the agriculture industry to have confidence that they’re going to have a constant seasonal workforce into the future.
Asked whether the arriving Southeast Asian workers, many of whom may have limited English-language skills, could be exploited or underpaid, Littleproud labeled such reports as “dangerous generalizations of demonization of Australian farmers.”