For nearly fifteen years, thousands of backpackers in Australia have made their way to rural areas to pick fruit, in exchange for leave to stay longer in the country. By most accounts they’re not good at it, and they don’t like it, staying in their jobs for an average of just five weeks.
But more recently, they’ve been joined by thousands of Pacific Islanders, from countries including Tonga, Vanuatu and Samoa, with a very different attitude to their work. These migrants, part of a program launched in 2012, come for short stints of seasonal work and make many times what they could at home.
The Seasonal Workers Program has been designed to support Australian development aid by boosting the incomes of workers from the Pacific, whilst simultaneously filling chronic farming labour shortages. In 2016-17 more than 6,000 workers participated in the scheme — a 37% increase on the year before — and numbers are expected to keep growing.
• For more like this, see our future of work newsfeed.
But the scheme’s twin objectives are sometimes in tension, and designing a programme to meet both Australia’s labour market needs and its overseas development goals is no easy task.
Like many developed countries, Australia has long had problems finding enough workers to fill seasonal jobs like fruit-picking and harvesting. A 2017 report found that 40% of vegetable growers have been unable to find enough workers at some point in the last five years.
The farming industry was pushing for access to more reliable workers than backpackers, and Pacific governments for more access to Australian labour markets. After New Zealand introduced a seasonal employment scheme in 2007, the Australian government decided to follow suit.
Migrants on the program work for employers accredited by the Australian government — typically large farms or labour hire companies — for up to seven months. It worked: research by the Australian Department of Agriculture found the new seasonal workers were 20% more productive than backpackers, and stayed in their jobs for more than four times as long.
The workers get significant benefits too. Employers provide accommodation and make a contribution to the cost of travel to Australia, but the main advantage is simply the much higher wage level in Australia. The World Bank’s evaluation found that migrants participating in the program earned 4.3 times more than they otherwise would have.
“It’s around AUD144 million (US$109 million) in total going directly to Pacific islanders,” said Jonathan Pryke, director of the Lowy Institute think tank’s Pacific Islands Program. “For Tonga and Vanuatu, that comes close to Australia’s bilateral aid contributions to those countries.”
The effects of those higher incomes are profound. In Tonga, for example, households which had participated in the program had more than two and a half times as much in savings, and their children were 7.7% more likely to be in school.
Managing the program to deliver these distinct benefits to workers and employers can be challenging. For one thing, it requires three separate government departments — for foreign affairs, employment and immigration — to work outside their normal sphere.
The Home Affairs department, for example, already operates a large and complex immigration system, Pryke pointed out. “They’ve set up this whole system in a certain way, and now are being told that they have to operate in a completely different way in the Pacific,” he said.
Beyond bureaucratic coordination, the programme’s twin goals do not always sit together easily, according to Jesse Doyle, co-author of a World Bank evaluation of the program. “The development objective is to try and reach workers who are in poorer households and more vulnerable, but they often aren’t the first choices for approved employers in Australia,” Doyle said.
That means policymakers need to focus on how to broaden participation in the SWP, Pryke agreed, both within countries and between them. Nearly 80% of last year’s intake came from Tonga and Vanuatu, relatively small countries where high migration could disrupt local economies. With New Zealand’s similar scheme still in operation, the programme’s rapid expansion could mean more than half of Tonga’s working-age population emigrating for seasonal work.
Another risk to the programme is the level of exploitation in Australia’s horticulture industry. Farms are often in remote areas and workers typically paid “piece rates” for the amount of fruit picked, rather than by the hour.
The desire to maintain good relations with Pacific governments means Australia has imposed tight regulations to limit abuse, according to Pryke. “There are actually more methods of reporting abuse than for other workers in the sector, like backpackers,” he said. “They can complain directly to the Australian government, to their sending country, or to the Fair Work Ombudsman in Australia.”
Nonetheless, there have been reports of exploitation including wage theft and dangerous working conditions — though these are disputed by the farms involved. Twelve workers on the scheme have died since 2012, prompting concern in sending countries and calls from the federal opposition for a full inquiry into the programme.
So far, though, there’s no sign that workers, Pacific governments or employers have been put off. About three-quarters of seasonal workers return each year, and the scheme has been expanding rapidly since the cap on migrant numbers was scrapped in 2015. Pryke is optimistic that the programme will endure. “Over time I think you’ll see more support,” he said. “The benefits are so obvious.” (Picture credit: Flickr/Donna Sutton)