The United Workers Union, the farm workers union, calls for urgent action to protect and resolve the visa status of migrant workers on Australian farms during the COVID-19 crisis.
Migrant workers are being left in limbo due to the uncertainty of ever changing travel restrictions and border closures, and no guaranteed access to safe and affordable healthcare amidst the global coronavirus pandemic. They are also facing the same key issue that all insecure workers in Australia are facing: Can they afford to self isolate?
United Workers Union spokesperson Jannette Armstrong said, “Without urgent support and clarity, Australia may see tens of thousands of visa workers stranded with invalid visas, or departing the country early leaving huge holes in some of our essential workforces.
“Australia’s supply of fresh produce is crucially dependent on temporary migrant workers. The labour of temporary and undocumented workers has held up the fresh produce industry in Australia for years.
“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,” she said.
The United Workers Union asks that the following measures are put in place to ensure worker safety and supply chain integrity:
1. Guaranteed paid special leave for all workers – permanent, casual, labour hire and contract – who are forced to either self-isolate as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, or where there is a genuine business downturn or shutdown as a result of the pandemic.
2. Implementation of an information ‘firewall’ between health services and the Department of Home Affairs, so that all workers feel safe to get the treatment they need irrespective of visa status.
3. Immediate end to visa enforcement and detention actions by the Department of Home Affairs targeting farm workers, noting that these actions serve only to force workers into hiding which, at this time, poses a serious risk to their health.
4. Immediate resolution of status for the thousands of undocumented migrant workers who have long been working on Australia farms, to provide them with lawful status to continue their crucial work.
5. Immediate government funding for adequate community isolation stations for temporary migrant workers to access if they are exposed to the virus.
6. Reviewing requirements of the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP), Working Holiday Maker Programme (WHMP) so that:
a. Student visa holders working in horticulture can work more than 20 hours per week if required;
b. Workers, if they wish, can remain in Australia beyond the expiry of their current visas;
c. Workers are no longer subjected to restriction on working for a single employer; and
d. Workers do not face out-of-pocket expenses related to COVID-19 testing and treatment.
7. The establishment of an Emergency Migrant Worker Taskforce, which includes 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, “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. 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 have created the dangerous possibility that fruit and vegetables could be left to rot if adequate workforce numbers cannot be assured, and the health, safety and rights of migrant workers cannot be adequately protected,” she said.