ASEAN ag visa makes no sense

The Federal Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, announced yesterday morning on the ABC that the National Party had demanded and gained acceptance of a proposed “seasonal agricultural workforce visa” for citizens of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) countries to come to Australia for up to nine months in a year – returning home each year for at least three months – for up to three years.

The Minister announced this as a concession that the Nationals had won from the Prime Minister to get their support for the UK free trade deal, announced on 15 June in the UK.

One of the provisions of the new trade agreement will remove the requirement for British backpackers to work for 88 days in a regional area to obtain a visa extension for a further 12 months. The Minister argued that the UK deal will lead to a loss of 10,000 seasonal farm workers each year, but this is a gross exaggeration since many only work for the minimum three months to get the second-year visa.

There are four problems with the Minister’s announcement.

The first is a high risk of worker exploitation. Although, in his media  release, the Minister emphasised that the ASEAN workers would (of course) get the same pay as other workers, in this Radio National interview he said that the scheme would work like the backpacker scheme. To quote, “this is simply really an extension of the working holiday maker, the new visa”. Unlike the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP), the working holiday maker (backpacker) visa has no requirement for employer sponsorship. Prospective farm workers simply get on a plane to Australia, find their own work and arrange their own accommodation. Of course employers prefer it. But the backpacker visa is infamous for its high level of exploitation.

Second, it would make no sense to have two seasonal labour programs – the tightly regulated SWP and a more lightly regulated ASEAN ag visa – applying different rules to the same workers just because they are from different countries.

Third, the new scheme would undermine the SWP, which, in the government’s own words, is the centrepiece of its flagship Pacific Step-up. If farmers have a choice of recruiting from Vietnam and Vanuatu, they will choose Vietnam, especially if the regulatory burden is lower. Antagonising and marginalising the Pacific (and Timor-Leste) in this way would be a strategic own goal for the government. The only way the SWP would survive is if the ASEAN visa was capped. But even if it was, there would be pressure from farmers to increase the cap over time.

Fourth and finally, there is no need for a new scheme. As the Minister himself said, there are 25,000 Pacific workers ready to come to Australia under the SWP (in addition to the 12,000 already here). They can more than fill any gap left by British backpackers moving from agriculture to urban work.

If we don’t need it, why the announcement? The Nationals have been pushing for an agricultural visa for years. Although the SWP was growing in leaps and bounds before COVID-19, many farmers regard the scheme as being over-regulated, and don’t want to work through labour hire companies (the main hirers of SWP workers). The Minister gave the game away by saying, in that same Radio National interview, that the SWP, because it employed Pacific workers, had to have “extra conditions and protections”. Apart from being incredibly condescending to the Pacific, the message here is the Nationals want to help farmers access less regulated migrant-labour options.

The Minister’s announcement was very much a solo effort. By contrast, just last week, Littleproud put out a joint press release along with his fellow ministers for employment, foreign affairs, immigration and the Pacific to announce a review of the SWP, to make it more responsive to employers. This is a good initiative. The regulatory burden of the SWP is too high. We have long argued that the SWP must be shaped more by farmers, and preferably run out of the Agriculture Department. But the way forward is precisely to reform the SWP, not to start another agricultural visa, for another group of countries, with its own, different set of rules.

If Littleproud is flying solo on the new ag visa, it might seem unlikely that his proposal will get up. And yet, go back to his radio remark that what he is proposing is just “an extension of the working holiday maker, the new visa”. This is a reference to the three-year backpacker visa that was introduced in 2018. At the time, we remarked that this was itself an agricultural visa, since it allows backpackers to work in Australia for three years if they undertake a minimum amount of regional work in the first two.

Five ASEAN countries already have capped access to the backpacker (462) visa, including the giants of Vietnam and Indonesia – 70% or more of backpackers from these two countries already work on farms to qualify for a second-year visa. It is quite plausible that those caps (currently 4,100 for Indonesia and 1,500 for Vietnam) would be increased to compensate farmers for the UK deal. It is also possible that the new, higher caps would come with two new conditions: (i) that not just some but all work must be regional; and (ii) that recipients must depart every year for three months.

These tweaks are all that would be required to put Littleproud’s proposed ASEAN agricultural visa in place. Even though such a visa is not needed. Even though it cannot make sense to have two seasonal labour schemes with two different sets of source countries and vastly different sets of rules. Even though it would undermine the SWP and the Pacific Step-up. And even though it would lead to greater worker exploitation.

In other words, on the one hand, Littleproud’s ASEAN agricultural visa is such bad policy that it is hard to imagine it proceeding to implementation; on the other, it would be so easy to introduce that it just might.


This research was undertaken with support from the Pacific Research Program, funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The views are those of the authors only.

Stephen Howes

Stephen Howes is Director of the Development Policy Centre and Professor of Economics at the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University.

Richard Curtain

Richard Curtain is a research associate, and recent former research fellow, with the Development Policy Centre. He is an expert on Pacific labour markets and migration.


  • The SWP is excellent and is the backbone of our ag industry. The assumption is that the Pacific nations have an endless supply of people of the necessary capability seeking to work in the Australian agri sector. Surprisingly we are finding that demand is out stripping supply.

    It is natural to assume that with 7.5 billion people on the planet Australian industry would have no issues attracting people to work in the agri industry, it would be foolish to think otherwise. One needs to stop and assess why do growers who face jail time for underpay of wages in both Vic and QLD seek an extension to the VISA program. Perhaps demand and supply rather than undercutting and exploitation could provide an alternative conversation.

  • Totally agree. Good article, thanks. Unions NSW and the Migrant Resource Centre in Victoria released a survey of 1,300 seasonal workers this week, which reports widespread underpayment of pickers on piece rates. The average hourly rate across 937 respondents was $17.33, well below the award, with 15% saying that they earned less than $7 per hour. I cannot see how this new scheme will contribute towards addressing worker exploitation (that you reported on in 2016).

  • Absolutely agree with this critique, thank you. As one with a heavy involvement in the SWP and PLS, I cannot see anything but problems arising from this development. I wonder what the AEs think?

    • Ask why Aussies won’t do this, because the money is crap. Once you pay for your accom and food, there ain’t much left. Don’t forget tax, might be lower now? They want to save a bit and also send money back for their family. These people will soon realise they can’t save money and will look for other work or disappear.

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