Inside Story

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2294 words

Comparing apples and oranges

5 July 2016

Peter Mares reports on a truncated parliamentary inquiry that revealed the problem of having two very different schemes dealing with rural labour shortages


Recruitment problem: the Seasonal Workers Programme was partly designed to deal with labour shortages in horticulture. branex/iStockphoto

Recruitment problem: the Seasonal Workers Programme was partly designed to deal with labour shortages in horticulture. branex/iStockphoto

Among the collateral damage of an early election – especially a double dissolution election – is the work of parliamentary committees. At 9am on 9 May, each and every committee of the forty-fourth parliament ceased to exist and many inquiries lapsed, their investigations unfinished. The joint standing committee on electoral matters was unable to complete its work on political donations, the House economics committee had reached no conclusions about home ownership, and the Senate finance and public administration committee had to abandon its work on the link between domestic violence and gender inequality.

Having had fair warning of Turnbull’s intentions, other committees rushed out their findings at the last minute. In the week before parliament was dissolved, the various Senate, House and joint committees published around seventy interim or final reports between them. Among the releases was a report from the joint standing committee on migration on its inquiry into Australia’s Seasonal Worker Programme.

It is no surprise that this document garnered little attention except among observers with a specialist interest. The nuts-and-bolts work of parliamentary committees – less spectacular than question time jousting and more taxing than poll-watching or leadership speculation – often goes unrecognised even in the middle of the electoral cycle. The pressure of the twenty-four-hour news cycle gives journalists little incentive to wade through bulky and often verbose publications, especially once they switch to campaign mode.

Yet committee work can be important and influential, as the history of the Seasonal Worker Programme, or SWP, shows. The Senate standing committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade put the scheme on the political agenda during its 2003 inquiry into Australia’s relations with Papua New Guinea and the island states of the southwest Pacific. One of the thirty-three recommendations of its report, A Pacific Engaged, was “a pilot program to allow for labour to be sourced from the region for seasonal work in Australia.” The Howard government’s response, two years later, was belated and muted. It noted the recommendation with the terse comment that “Australia has traditionally not supported programs to bring low-skilled seasonal workers to Australia.”

Yet the idea gained traction, not least because Pacific Island leaders began lobbying for such a scheme at regional meetings. The World Bank took an interest, too, commissioning research on labour mobility in the Pacific that fed back into the parliamentary process. In 2006, the Senate education and employment committee explored the idea in far greater detail. Its report, Perspectives on the Future of the Harvest Labour Force, recommended against piloting a seasonal worker scheme, arguing that the proposal was “likely to be vulnerable to populist sentiment at this time.” Yet the committee’s inquiry served to advance the cause by engaging interested parties and putting a wealth of evidence, argument and research on the public record.

In 2007, in a report on Australia’s aid program in the Pacific, the joint foreign affairs, defence and trade committee renewed its push for “an active and serious evaluation” of a scheme, and in the same year New Zealand launched its seasonal labour program, now known as the Recognised Seasonal Employer Work Policy. Eventually Australia followed suit, announcing the Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme in 2008. In 2012, the pilot became the SWP, an ongoing program for migrants from Pacific Island nations and East Timor.

Since then, New Zealand’s scheme has taken off – it is widely seen as a success – while Australia’s SWP remains limited in size and impact. Despite its much smaller economy, New Zealand hosts around 8000 seasonal workers each year; Australia’s numbers are fewer than 3000.

In an effort to reinvigorate the SWP, the federal government introduced changes designed partly to make it more accessible to employers, and partly to complement the white paper on developing northern Australia. The annual cap on worker numbers has been removed, and participation will now be “determined by employers’ unmet demand for labour.” The scheme has also been broadened from horticulture to take in aquaculture, and cane and cotton farming, with proposals to extend it to other agricultural sectors under active consideration.

A trial of seasonal workers in the “accommodation industry” has been converted into a permanent program, opening up jobs for waiters, kitchen hands, gardeners and cleaners. This is initially limited to Western Australia, the Northern Territory, tropical north Queensland and South Australia’s Kangaroo Island, but other locations are likely to be added over time and a trial of other seasonal jobs in tourism is under way in northern Australia.

Other rules designed to protect the interests of seasonal workers have also been relaxed. Sponsoring employers no longer have to guarantee workers a minimum of fourteen weeks’ employment, for example; that requirement has been replaced by a vague onus on employers “to demonstrate to the Australian government that seasonal workers will benefit financially from their participation.”

Even with these changes, though, it’s unlikely that the scheme will be attractive to large numbers of employers, particularly in the horticultural sector, which it was originally intended to assist. And despite remaining small, the scheme is also likely to be prone to periodic scandals. Why? Because other key problems haven’t been dealt with, as is clear from the migration committee report released just before the election campaign began.

The report pointed to the fact that the SWP is “in direct competition” with the much larger and largely unregulated Working Holiday Maker scheme. Of the 226,812 backpackers given working holiday visas in 2014–15, a large proportion would have sought seasonal employment. The reason is no mystery: if they work in a regional area for at least eighty-eight days (in plant and animal cultivation, tree farming and felling, fishing and pearling, or mining and construction), they qualify for a second twelve-month visa. More than 41,000 of these second visas were granted last financial year.

Farmers who want to engage working holiday-makers don’t have to prove their credentials in any way, whereas “approved employers” under the SWP must demonstrate not only “good immigration practices and a history of compliance with immigration legislation” but also “a history of compliance with Australian workplace relations, work health and safety legislation, and other relevant laws.” While only fifty-eight employers were approved under the SWP in 2014–15, a majority of horticultural producers report employing working holiday-makers. An employer who wants to recruit backpackers doesn’t have to test the local labour market at all, whereas approved SWP employers must advertise for a two-week period within the three months before they bring a seasonal worker to Australia.

Extensive evidence shows that working holiday-makers are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse from employers who can determine whether they qualify for a second twelve-month visa. The SWP is not without problems either – as recent cases involving the ill-treatment of workers from Fiji and Vanuatu show – but it is easier to monitor the employment conditions of teams of workers deployed under a centrally organised program than it is to keep track of what happens to tens of thousands of backpackers independently entering the rural labour market. As the migration committee noted, the Fair Work Ombudsman receives a “relatively low” number of complaints about employers in the SWP compared to other sectors. So it’s disappointing that the committee called for yet another review of the two programs rather than making the bolder recommendation that the second working holiday visa be phased out and the labour market gaps filled instead by an expansion of the SWP.

Abuse could be further reduced if state and federal governments regulated the labour hire industry effectively. On this point the migration committee did call for action, endorsing an earlier Senate education and employment committee recommendation that labour hire contractors be subject to a licensing regime. That committee’s report on temporary work visas, A National Disgrace, concluded that “certain parts of the labour hire industry… have been a breeding ground for the widespread and egregious exploitation of temporary visa workers.” A re-elected Turnbull government committed to cutting red tape (or even a minority Coalition government) is unlikely to act decisively on this issue.

The migration committee’s report on the SWP also recommended that the program be expanded into new sectors suffering from labour shortages, notably aged care, childcare and disability care. This would certainly help achieve the committee’s laudable aim of opening up the program to more women, but it is problematic in other ways. Unlike significant parts of the agriculture and tourism industries, there is nothing remotely seasonal about care work.

Bringing in low-skilled migrant workers on temporary visas to fill ongoing gaps in the labour market is a very different proposition from a seasonal scheme in which migrants come to Australia for a defined period each year, and it would open the door to a different range of problems. Assuming that these migrants would be working and paying tax in Australia for years at a time, what rights would they accrue to access welfare benefits? Would there be a pathway to permanent residency and citizenship, or would they, like many New Zealanders, be trapped in permanent temporariness? If Australia needs low-skilled workers from the Pacific and East Timor to fill permanent jobs, then we must offer them permanent visas and allow them to settle with their families and become full members of the political community.

The SWP was designed to be cyclical, with migrants spending less than six months at a time in Australia but returning year after year in subsequent seasons. (For workers from Kiribati, Nauru or Tuvalu, the time limit has been extended to nine months because of the significant expense and difficulty of travelling to Australia from those micro-states.) It was hoped that migrant workers would be able to maintain close links with their families and home communities rather than be separated from them for years at a time. And it was hoped that the workers would use the skills and savings acquired in Australia to improve their own lives at home and the lives of those around them.

The program focuses on island states in the Pacific (and East Timor) in recognition of the reality that these small, often isolated nations can struggle to generate internal economies of scale or export markets large enough to create sufficient employment for young and growing populations. (Thankfully, the migration committee resisted calls for the SWP to be expanded to countries in Southeast Asia. Some employers and industry lobby groups had sought this expansion so that they could argue for greater market access for Australian agricultural products.)

The SWP was also designed to benefit Australian employers, especially in horticulture. Over recent years it has become increasingly difficult to recruit sufficient staff for the “dramatic but predictable seasonal peaks in demand for labour” in the industry – work like fruit picking and pruning. Jobs like these don’t offer an attractive career path, and with populations declining in rural areas and competition from other more lucrative sectors like mining, no pool of local workers exists to take up positions when needed. Students might once have filled this niche during vacations, but they can now find better-paid work without leaving the city. Since the introduction of the second working holiday visa, backpackers have become the default workforce for horticulture and are also increasingly important in tourism. But relying on such an itinerant workforce has its disadvantages.

The Victorian apple-growing firm Vernview, for example, told the committee that the high turnover makes working holiday-makers unreliable because “backpackers tend to only want to be around for short periods before heading off to the next region as many have a pre-planned itinerary of exploring Australia.” This has often left the business “short of labour and caused issues on critical days of harvest and getting the crop picked in optimum condition.”

Mossmont Nursery in Griffith echoed this concern, noting that backpackers are unskilled:

They generally care little for the work and are very unreliable. On average, they work for us for about a month – maybe two months if we are lucky – and then move on. Every time they leave, we have to retrain and reskill staff, which costs us money and time. Further, a lot of our trees get damaged…

By encouraging migrants to return year after year, the SWP aims to provide employers with a secure source of increasingly skilled and experienced labour. Queensland firm Golden Mile No. 1 confirmed this experience, telling the committee that employees under the SWP were “at least twice as productive as backpackers.”

In 2014–15 more than half the workers in the SWP were return migrants. The increased productivity that repeat workers bring to an enterprise should offset the extra costs associated with a more highly regulated scheme (including the requirement for employers to share the costs of workers’ travel). It is not only individual growers who stand to benefit, but also the industry as a whole and the wider economy. According to evidence presented to the committee, New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme has delivered a 32 per cent increase in output.

As long as the second working holiday visa is on offer, though, many rural enterprises and labour hire firms will continue to recruit cheaper, unregulated backpackers rather than go to the trouble of seeking accreditation under the SWP. And unless labour contractors are subjected to a rigorous system of licensing and regulation, we should expect more scandalous examples of abuse of temporary workers of all kinds. •

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