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Labor’s immigration spokeswoman Kristina Keneally is calling for restrictions on temporary migration in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic to “put Australians First”. But the horticulture industry is a sign of why it might not be as simple as tightening borders.

Australia’s fruit and vegetable sector is highly dependent on cheap, often underpaid and undocumented migrant labourers. As Crikey reported yesterday, many of these workers are worried unsafe working and living conditions put them at risk of infection.

But with global instability, tightening borders and a lack of movement, Australia’s dependence on these workers could be tested and deepened

Without working holiday makers

It isn’t just undocumented workers who pick Australia’s fruit. Foreigners on working holiday visas are described as the “backbone” of Australia’s horticulture industry. But that reliance could be tested through 2020, as travel restrictions stop workers coming to Australia.

Joanna Howe, an associate professor of labour law at the University of Adelaide, says that with travel restrictions, growers won’t be able to access a big chunk of their regular workforce over the crucial summer harvest period. 

“There’s going to be a real crisis for the horticulture industry,” Howe says.

Just what will that shortage in the industry look like? Fortunately, we haven’t seen it kick in yet, says Emma Germano, vice president of the Victorian Farmers’ Federation. So far, there’s been a stream of backpackers and other foreign workers leaving behind jobs in closed-down cafes and bars to work on farms.  

The decision to relax restrictions on working holiday visa holders and allow extensions for those in industries like agriculture has also put potential labour shortages at bay. But without figures on how many working holiday visa holders have left the country, why won’t yet know whether we’ll have an undersupply once it hits peak season.

Can we survive without migrants?

But at least some elements in the federal opposition party think the number of temporary immigrants in Australia is too high, and want an overhaul of the system after the pandemic.

“Our economic recovery must help all Australians get back on their feet, and to do that we need a migration program that puts Australian workers first” Keneally wrote in a controversial op-ed

Keneally’s pivot on immigration, which came without full cabinet support is a sign of contentious debates within the Labor movement. Labor MP Anne Aly expressed discomfort with immigrant-blaming rhetoric, while former NSW Premier Bob Carr likened it to dog-whistling. While Keneally appeared to get some tentative support from ACTU secretary Sally McManus, other unions came out against her stance.

The horticulture sector, which depends greatly on both working holiday visa holders and undocumented migrants, suggests it isn’t quite as simple as replacing foreign labor with unemployed domestic workers.

Germano says the idea that migrants are taking Australian jobs is untrue. Instead, most Australians just don’t want to head to the regions and work in horticulture.

And while Keneally suggests that many temporary workers are underpaid, it’s unclear whether migration restrictions will fix issues around rampant exploitation of undocumented workers in the horticulture industry. 

“There are only two ways to fix this problem,” Germano says.

“One of them is to give undocumented migrants status resolution and create a legitimate stream for those people to work in the country. The other is to round them up and send them home.”

Germano says she’s pushed hard to regularise migration, and develop an agricultural visa for workers in Australia, but the Coalition isn’t interested.

“The government knows this is going on, and all they do is send Border Force around, which is more of a PR activity than meaningful enforcement.”

Howe suggests the pandemic could give Australia an opportunity to finally come to terms with the depths of its reliance on undocumented labour, and provide pathways to regular visa status for these workers. 

Either way, the pandemic and changes to global mobility will pose serious problems for Australian horticulture — problems that will need to be solved by more than just tighter borders.