PALM Visa Conditions Exploit Pacific Neighbours Working in Lucrative Australian Industries

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New analysis from the Australia Institute has highlighted the extent to which temporary workers from the Pacific Islands and Timor-Leste are supporting essential agricultural and food processing industries, adding weight to calls for much needed improvements to working conditions for temporary visa holders participating in the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme.

The analysis finds that PALM workers are equivalent to 10% of the agricultural workforce usually resident in Australia, and equivalent to nearly a quarter (23%) of Australia’s meat processing workforce usually resident in Australia.

The report highlights the exploitation and poor working conditions of many temporary workers and recommends that working conditions meet those afforded to domestic workers .

Australia Institute research shows that a key recommendation – that PALM Scheme visa holders have access to Medicare while working in Australia, is supported by over two-thirds of Australians.

Key points:

  • PALM Visa workers are equivalent to 10% of the agricultural workforce usually resident in Australia, and nearly a quarter (23%) of the meat processing workforce usually resident in Australia
  • The conditions imposed on PALM workers place them at the mercy of employers in a way that would be illegal for domestic workers. Their employers are allowed to make deductions from their wages, and workers are unable to leave their employers without going through a rigorous bureaucratic process. If they chose to leave an abusive employer without approval they face the threat of having their visa cancelled
  • The number of people from Tonga on PALM visas is equivalent to 9% of the Tongan working age population. This figure is 5% for Vanuatu, and 3.4% for  Samoa. Pacific leaders have expressed concern about the effects of such large temporary migration programs on domestic economies
  • There is strong support amongst the Australian public to provide better conditions for PALM visa workers. Australia Institute polling shows that over two-thirds of Australians believe PALM visa holders should have access to Medicare while working in Australia
  • Industries within which PALM visa holders are strongly represented make massive profits for the Australian economy. Last year, the combined earnings from agricultural production ($90 billion) and agricultural export ($75 billion) were worth in excess of $160 billion
  • In Vanuatu, so many people are coming to Australia and New Zealand to work that the government has introduced a new class of temporary working visa aimed at bringing 1,500 foreign workers to Vanuatu to fill gaps in their labour force. Similarly, the Samoan government has proposed an annual cap of 12,000 temporary worker visas to address domestic labour and skills shortages

“The numbers show that workers from the Pacific Islands and Timor-Leste are keen to take up the opportunity to work in Australia, but being tied down to a specific employer creates problems. It leaves workers enormously vulnerable to abuse and coercion and seriously reduces their ability to leave exploitative situations,” said Dr Adhikari, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Australia Institute.

“While recent reforms to the program are certainly welcome, Australia can do more to ensure the equitable treatment of PALM Scheme visa holders. Overseas workers should be able to participate in temporary migration programs and return home with dignity as well as savings.

“Australia wants the Pacific region to think of us as a family and the Australian government wants to lean on our neighbourly relationship to establish partnerships for development, security and COP31. We are asking for the co-operation and trust of Pacific Island nations, but our policies leave their citizens vulnerable to exploitation as they pick the fruit and vegetables that end up on Australian tables.”

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