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New visa risks changing the character of Australia forever

Tuesday 13 July 2021, by siawi3


New visa risks changing the character of Australia forever

Abul Rizvi
Former deputy secretary in the Department of Immigration.

June 18, 2021 — 5.00am

Throughout the almost two decades I spent in the immigration department, it was received wisdom that we must prevent Australia becoming a low-skill guest worker society such as the United States, many nations of Europe and the Gulf states.

The idea that there are some jobs that Australians simply will not do was one we refused to accept. To do so would fundamentally change Australian society into one that accepted that some humans were of a lesser status than us and had to be brought in to do the jobs we refused to do.

Photo: Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced he will establish an agriculture visa for people from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).Credit:Justin McManus

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement that he will establish an agriculture visa for people from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is perhaps the final step to Australia becoming a low-skill guest worker society. A society that accepts some “lesser” humans – usually people of colour — are needed to do the jobs we will not.

As this change has happened gradually over the past decade, many Australians will not have appreciated the transition we are making – but it will change Australia forever. The Morrison government will argue that Australia’s agriculture visa will be quite different to the agriculture visa (H2A) in the US. The American agriculture visa has often been described as a very small step from slavery.

Creating an agriculture visa is a very slippery slope as I described back in 2018. The National Party and the farming lobby are overjoyed that Morrison has at last succumbed to their pressure to create an agriculture visa – he is now taking credit for it after previously rejecting the idea. Farmers, unscrupulous labour hire companies and dodgy agents will now have full access to farm workers they can exploit without relying on the more restrictive Pacific Island seasonal worker visa, working holidaymakers or asylum seekers, including unsuccessful asylum seekers.

There are four main risks in creating an agriculture visa. Firstly, the risk of exploitation and abuse is extreme. Exploitation of farm workers is already endemic. And while the media concentrates on backpackers, the exploitation extends well beyond this to Pacific Island seasonal workers and the massive labour trafficking scam and abuse of the asylum system that has taken place over the past six to seven years — a scam to which Peter Dutton was happy to turn a blind eye.

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Secondly, the occupational health and safety risks are multiplied when guest workers have no agency to complain about their treatment and have little English language skills. It is not surprising that under the relatively small Pacific Island seasonal worker visa, the Senate was told earlier this year that there had already been 25 deaths.

Thirdly, it will entrench racist attitudes in Australia such as one expressed by Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack about workers from Pacific Islands. Finally, it will maintain downward pressure on wages of Australians in low-skill jobs. It will also limit the ability of unemployed Australians to access farm jobs because they cannot compete with heavily exploited guest workers.

While the government will argue it is taking steps to limit these risks, experience around the world and in Australia suggests these steps will be little more than tokenistic. But it is not just in agriculture that the government has been pursuing its low-skill guest worker agenda.

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Last month, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke quietly changed Australia’s long-standing policy of limiting the number of hours student visa holders could work while classes were in session. Student visa holders can now work for unlimited hours in the tourism and hospitality industry.

That makes Australia’s student visas really just low skill work visas with some incidental study while our international competitors in the education industry stress the quality of education they deliver and strictly limit the number of hours students can work.

Hawke made this change without any consultation with Australia’s universities and was simply responding to pressure from the hospitality and tourism industry. He has effectively trashed the reputation of Australia’s third biggest export earning industry.

Another example of the government increasing the availability of low-skill guest workers to employers is its steadfast refusal to increase the minimum salary that must be paid to workers whom employers sponsor from overseas. That minimum salary has been frozen since 2013.

These government decisions highlight a pattern: the Morrison government is determined to ensure Australia becomes the low-skill guest worker society past governments said we should never become.

Abul Rizvi was a senior official in the Department of Immigration from the early 1990s to 2007. He is a former deputy secretary of the department.