Backpackers, visa workers need help to keep ag sector working

Let ag's visa workers stay longer with health cover says union


Australia's fresh produce harvest and other farm work depends on temporary migrant workers now caught outside the health system and visa rules


The United Workers Union says many thousands of visa workers are likely to be stranded in Australia with invalid visas, or forced to depart the country early, leaving huge holes in essential workforces such as the farm sector.

Supplies of fresh produce were particularly dependent on temporary migrant workers whose needs had to be better recognised as the coronavirus health crisis escalated.

The union represents a diverse cross section of private and public sector employees from poultry, dairy and horticultural workers, to food processing sector staff, ambulance paramedics and teachers' aides.

It wants urgent action to protect and resolve the visa status of migrant workers on Australian farms during the coronavirus epidemic.

With Australia facing a shortage of farm labour because new temporary workers cannot arrive in the country, the union has also called for student visa holders working in horticulture be allowed to do more than 20 hours a week, and for workers to be let stay in Australia beyond the expiry of their current visas.

As casual workers and non-citizens, they don't have the visa security, wage support and access to health care they need to be protected in this national health crisis. - Jannette Armstrong, United Workers Union

Temporary migrant workers were being left in limbo due to the uncertainty of ever changing travel restrictions and border closures, said union representative, Jannette Armstrong.

These workers had no guaranteed access to safe and affordable health care amid the global pandemic.

They also faced the same key issue many in the workforce were worried about - the cost of self isolating.


Ms Armstrong said without urgent support and clarity, Australia may leave tens of thousands of visa workers stranded with invalid visas, or going home.

"The labour of temporary and undocumented workers has supported the fresh produce industry in Australia for years," she said.

"As casual workers and non-citizens, temporary migrant workers do not have the visa security, wage support and access to healthcare they need to be protected in this national health crisis.

"Swift government action is required to ensure workers who are in the country now can have their visa status resolved.

"They need support and guaranteed protections so they can get on with the job of picking and packing fruit and vegetables in growing regions throughout Australia."

Paid special leave

To ensure worker safety and supply chain integrity the United Workers Union has called for guaranteed paid special leave for all workers - permanent, casual, labour hire and contract - who are forced to self-isolate as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Similar guarantees have also been sought where there is a genuine business downturn or shutdown as a result of the pandemic.

The union also wants an information "firewall" established between health services and the Department of Home Affairs, so workers felt safe if seeking treatment they needed irrespective of visa status.

Ms Armstrong said the government should review requirements of the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP), Working Holiday Maker Programme (WHMP) so workers were no longer subjected to restrictions on working for a single employer, and to ensure they did not face out-of-pocket expenses related to COVID-19 testing and treatment.

Also on the union's wish list is a call for government funding for adequate community isolation stations for temporary migrant workers exposed to the virus.

These measures, if implemented successfully, will help ensure those on the front line in our farms and packing houses are able to do their job safely - Jannette Armstrong

It wanted an Emergency Migrant Worker Taskforce with worker representatives, built around the current Fair Work Ombudsman Horticulture Reference Group, to manage farm worker welfare and other labour issues in horticulture throughout the COVID19 crisis.

Ms Armstrong said visa enforcement and detention actions by the Department of Home Affairs targeting farm workers were actually a risk to regional communities.

Workers in hiding

These actions forced workers into hiding which, at this time, posed a serious danger to their health.

She said the status of thousands of undocumented migrant workers who had long been working on Australian farms needed to be resolved so they could continue their crucial work.

"These measures, if implemented successfully, will help ensure those on the front line in our farms and packing houses are able to do their job safely," she said.

"It will also create the necessary conditions for industry stakeholders and governments to work together to manage a stable, safe and protected workforce in this time of national crisis."

The current COVID-19 outbreak and restrictions around international travel had created a dangerous possibility that fruit and vegetables may be left to rot if adequate workforce numbers were not assured.

The health, safety and rights of migrant workers also needed to be adequately protected.

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