Why the Australian Refugee Council’s residency proposal should be opposed

The Refugee Council of Australia has put forward a proposal for refugees to pick fruit and vegetables as a path to secure permanent residence in Australia. Its plan is for the government to offer this scheme to the 17,000 people in Australia on temporary protection visas and safe haven enterprise visas, which currently offer them little prospect of residency and therefore a life in limbo.

This scheme should be opposed by all supporters of refugee rights. It just puts more pressure on already vulnerable people and takes no account of their rights. It has found support among the very politicians whose bipartisan anti-refugee policies created those inhuman temporary visas in the first place.

“I think they appeal to me because they’ve been here seven to nine years already”, Nationals MP Damian Drum said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, “and we would know by now if they’re going to be unlawful in their day to day activities”.

Labor MP Julian Hill, again quoted by the Herald, was blunt about the economic motivations: “There’s a desperate need for warm human bodies prepared to work hard in the regions right now and for the next couple of years until the borders reopen properly”.

In other words, it is fine for refugees to rot in detention centres and then in the community for years with no rights and no certainty. But we can’t have Australia’s fruit and vegetable stock allowed to rot in the fields. An alternative supply of exploitable labour must be found to harvest it.

Suddenly, refugee bashers are interested in what refugees are doing with their lives—right at the point when harvests are due and there are tens of thousands fewer backpackers and temporary migrant workers in Australia. Their interest comes straight from a concern about profits—exactly the same concern responsible for the low wages, bullying and sexual harassment, and appalling living conditions that already characterise the fruit and vegetable industry and have done for decades.

Bonded labour schemes like this, with their medieval master-serf overtones, are mechanisms for increasing exploitation and reducing workers’ ability to resist it. They need to be opposed.

We already know what abuses bonded labour schemes produce from the experience of migrant workers on temporary work visas. According to a Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) investigator in 2018: “In some cases, the FWO encountered situations where a person is virtually bonded like a slave to a particular [labour hire] provider, on the basis they have been told they won't have their visa extension signed unless they see out the season with them”.

For something far less fundamental than the right to safe and secure residency, backpackers on working holiday visas have put up with abuses to meet the requirements of the scheme and stay in the country. The same FWO official reported: “We saw backpackers being lured to regional centres by dodgy labour hire operators, treating them poorly, bullying and sexually harassing them and ripping them off to the tune of hundreds—and sometimes thousands—of dollars per person”.

Human rights are just that—rights. They should not be dependent on someone’s capacity to generate profits for a boss. To “ask desperate people to pick fruit for their freedom”, as Shirley Jackson put it in the Guardian, negates the very concept of freedom.

It says a lot about how appalling the existing visa conditions are that a refugee might consider taking this on. A choice between forced labour as the only path to a safe and secure life, or returning to persecution and danger in their original country, is not a real choice.

Temporary protection visas and safe haven enterprise visas are disgraceful. All those who languish in the limbo created by these visas deserve permanent residency. Permanent protection is what we need to fight for, not schemes through which refugees gain their rights only when it suits the needs of capitalism.

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