Calls to change visa rules as undocumented workers risk missing out on vaccinations

Australia’s coronavirus vaccine rollout could be undercut by up to 100,000 undocumented workers who are either unable or too afraid to come forward to get a jab because they do not have a legal right to live or work here.

Nationals MPs, a major farm workers’ union and an independent federal government committee have all recommended giving the workers a one-off chance to get a legitimate visa to encourage them to get vaccinated, which could also reduce workforce shortages on fruit and vegetable farms.

Horticulture depends on a large migrant workforce, usually comprised of now-absent backpackers, to do the hard manual work of harvesting.Credit:Justin McManus

A new plan from University of Adelaide associate law professor Joanna Howe overcomes one of the industry’s primary objections – that there is no clear model for how that visa would work. She argues the government could extend an existing visa available to people doing essential work during the pandemic.

“Without this, undocumented workers will not get vaccinated as they risk detention or deportation if they come forward to access medical treatment,” Dr Howe writes in her report, which federal government and opposition MPs will be briefed on on Monday and which has been seen by this masthead.

Migrant farm workers who spoke to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on condition of anonymity to protect their employment prospects agreed.

They said they had witnessed undocumented colleagues refusing to go to hospital despite serious accidents, such as falling out of tall fruit trees, or being told by supervisors not to go. That attitude would hold true of vaccination, the workers said, as did the United Workers Union’s farm director, Jannette Armstrong.

“This pandemic has shown us time and time again that if we don’t look after everyone in our community, we put the whole community at risk,” Ms Armstrong said.

Expert estimates put the number of undocumented farm workers in Australia at between 60,000 and 100,000 people. Because of visa issues, those workers can find it hard to cross state borders for work when permits are required.

At the same time, modelling from consulting firm EY predicted the horticulture sector would be short 26,000 workers in the six months to the end of this month. Figures from industry group Growcom suggest shortages have led to more than $45 million in crop losses.

The National Farmers Federation said the “widely acknowledged” problem with undocumented workers in Australian agriculture was a symptom of chronic worker shortages, coupled with bad practices by some labour-hire providers.

However, the federation said following the agriculture workforce taskforce recommendation to offer an amnesty to undocumented workers that it was “yet to see an adequately detailed plan” to resolve the problem.

“The key issue, from agriculture’s perspective, is addressing the farm workforce shortage,” a spokesperson said.

The federation continued to call for a dedicated visa for agriculture workers.

Horticulture bodies tried to reach a joint position on visas for undocumented workers at an industry forum last week but were unable to agree, people familiar with the conversations said.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s office referred requests for comment to the Department of Home Affairs, which said offering visas to people who had overstayed could encourage people to break migration law long-term.

“The government does not support blanket regularisation of the status of unlawful non-citizens who have breached work-related visa conditions or overstayed their visa,” a spokesperson said. “To do so would significantly undermine the integrity of Australia’s universal visa framework.”

Everyone in Australia, regardless of their visa status, should follow public health directions and get tested if they had COVID symptoms, the spokesperson added. The Commonwealth was not told the identities of people who had coronavirus tests but would make vaccination available to “everyone in Australia”, the spokesperson said.

Dr Howe’s report argues that the coronavirus pandemic offers a unique opportunity, because borders are closed to people who might want to abuse the program to gain a long-term visa.

Under her model, undocumented workers would apply for a visa of up to four years, with a pathway to permanent residency to be developed later. They would have to show they had worked in horticulture for at least six months, through evidence such as a letter from an employer or union.

The government should undertake not to investigate horticulture employers who used undocumented migrants to make sure they do not stop their workers coming forward, Dr Howe writes.

With Mike Foley

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