Economics Professor on Regional Visa and Pacific Labour Scheme

By: Marcelle P. Villegas October 04, 2021

Stephen Howes, Professor of Economics, Crawford School of Public Policy (ANU College of Asia and the Pacific) [Photo credit: Australian National University]

In a commentary of Stephen Howes, Director of the Development Policy Center and a Professor of Economics at the Crawford School of Public Policy, shared his opinion and discussed how the June ASEAN agricultural visa announcement could develop or evolve. He noted three possibilities.

First point he made is the possibility that Asian countries will by allowed to join the Pacific Seasonal Worker Program (SWP) and the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS). Another scheme might be in place as well for Asian countries. Lastly, "existing backpacker caps for Asians to work in Australia would be increased." [1]

An announcement made last August by a group of Ministers on both sides of the Coalition entails that a new Australian Agriculture visa is to be created in addition to the SWP and PLS. However, the commentary notes that "it is hard to believe that the regulations for the new visa will be in place by the end of next month."

"Agriculture Minister David Littlepround highlighted the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam (and the UK) in his ABC interview."

However, the press release only says that the Australian Agriculture visa will be open to applicants from a range of countries negotiated through bilateral agreements. No countries were mentioned.

"Despite these assurances, the press release is in some ways more alarming than the initial Littleproud announcement," said Howes.

Aside from the agriculture sector, the new visa covers other related industry such as the meat processing, forestry, and fishing. Administration of the new visa is to be given to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

Even with DFAT being assigned to handle the new visa, some speculate that this might pose a threat to the Pacific labour mobility in the PLS. The meat processing industry comprises 71% of the PLS jobs, while agriculture and horticulture is 21%.

"If employers in these two sectors switch to the new visa PLS will collapse," according to Howes.

He also points out that the SWP might also be in danger. "The risks are especially high given the press release's commitment to a 'demand-driven approach' -- the implication being that the new visa will be uncapped. The Australian Agriculture visa lacks public policy justification. All the sectors covered by it are already covered by the PLS."

Timor-Leste and the Pacific island nations sends workers under the SWP and PLS, and they have to meet the demand for labour in those sectors.

"If this new visa is to have a pathway to permanency built into it (something which the press release says will be considered) then so too should the PLS. And whatever safeguards are applied to the PLS should equally apply to this scheme," said Howes.



[1] Howes, Stephen (30 Aug. 2021). "Yesterday's Regional Visa announcement: The End of the PLS?". Post-Courier. Retrieved from -

Note: The article by Stephen Howes that was published on Post-Courier first appeared on Devpolicy Blog (, from the Development Policy Center at the Australian National University. ret

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