“All we’re waiting for now is Marise Payne to complete the bilateral deals [sic].”
The government had said the program would be offered to the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which include Thailand, Cambodia, Brunei, Myanmar, the Philippines, Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia.
The government is currently in negotiations with four countries.
So far, Indonesia has signed a memorandum of understanding, but the status of the other three countries remains unknown.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) told SBS News that negotiations are underway with a “small number of Southeast Asian countries” and that the federal government aims to finalize the agreements “as soon as possible”.
“Bilateral talks with Indonesia are well advanced,” the department said in a statement.
“Finalization of bilateral negotiations depends on each country agreeing to arrangements covering its citizens and ensuring the protections the program will provide.”
SBS News has spoken to several embassies, who say they are in talks with the Australian government but there is no timeline for a final decision.
The initial announcement was made in response to the Australia-UK Free Trade Agreement, which removed the requirement for UK backpackers to work on farms for 88 days if they wanted to stay in Australia for two years.
But the program might only see a fraction of the workers needed in the short term.
“To register a country, they will actually want to have what you would call a pilot and bring in either 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 [workers] to be able to prove that the program works and that the guarantees that we promised them are there,” said Mr. Littleproud.
It fuels tensions within the government between liberals and nationals.
SBS News spoke with a Nationals MP who said the action taken was not urgent enough, especially in the run-up to the federal election.
The delays will likely cause some regional MPs to pressure senior management for solutions.
“Be careful what you sign up for”
A major concern among nations remains the welfare of citizens, following revelations of poor pay conditions for some Pacific Island workers – some allegedly receiving as little as $100 a week.
The Australian Workers Union (AWU) has approached ASEAN embassies directly, encouraging them not to enroll in the visa scheme.
“The message we told them was, ‘be careful what you sign up for,'” AWU Secretary Daniel Walton said.
“There are fewer restrictions, fewer rights in place; and all it’s going to do is leave more workers exploited.”
Mr Littleproud said the union was jeopardizing the deal.
“I can’t believe a union would sabotage but also undermine the reputation of Australian farms, but also the reputation of Australia,” he said.
The government says adequate safeguards are in place.
“We are also lifting sanctions and strengthening regulatory frameworks around licensed employers and labor hire companies,” Mr Littleproud said.
The DFAT spokesperson said minimum requirements for employers and protections for workers are critical to implementing the program.
“The Morrison government has zero tolerance for visa fraud, illegal employment, worker exploitation or underpayment of workers of any kind,” the spokesperson said.
“Forced to abandon the crops”
It’s another hurdle in an already struggling agricultural sector that has seen farmers throw away their crops due to lack of staff.
Cherry grower Tom Eastlake said a lack of foreign and local workers, border closures and COVID-19 forced him to drop the stock.
“We were forced to leave 40-50% behind just because we didn’t have the staff to pick it,” he told SBS News.
Mr Eastlake said the Pacific Australia Labor Mobility (PALM) scheme, where workers largely operate year-round, is not suitable for seasonal crops where there is only work a few months of the year.
“There are a lot of eggs in the basket in the Pacific program, which is great, especially for some industries that can operate year-round with these kinds of employees. It’s phenomenal,” he said. he declares.
“But there’s a very large percentage of horticultural crops that just can’t do that.”
He hopes that a solution will be found soon.