Australia’s Seasonal Worker Programme is failing workers and employers

| June 16, 2021

The Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) is a short-term migration pathway for low-skilled workers from nine Pacific countries and Timor-Leste to work in Australia.

The tightly regulated pathway allows approved employers to recruit for work in agriculture and regional accommodation. In practice, most SWP workers are employed to harvest fruit and vegetables to meet seasonal demand in Australia’s horticultural sector.

There is high demand for SWP work in sending countries because workers are well paid compared to jobs in their own country. SWP workers receive the higher hourly rate paid to casual workers in Australia and they also benefit from a work contract guaranteeing that they receive at least 30 hours of paid work a week. But this obligation on employers has been difficult to meet due to COVID-19.

Initially, with little to no COVID-19 in the main sending countries of Vanuatu, Tonga and Timor-Leste, the Programme looked like it was well placed to respond to the widespread anticipated labour shortages caused by the closure of Australia’s international border. The shortage was estimated to be 26,000 workers during the harvest months.

But plans to make extensive use the SWP were not realised. Employers have only been permitted to bring in 1,370 SWP workers (as of March 2021) by charter flights who are required to undergo a strict 14-day quarantine on arrival. Additionally, about 7000 SWP workers who arrived before the borders closed have been unable to leave Australia far beyond the time they initially committed to.

The SWP’s sister program, the Pacific Labour scheme (PLS), which focuses on low and semi-skilled jobs for longer durations of up to three years, was never really well positioned to fill the gap because its main sources of employment have not been in agriculture.

The number of PLS workers in Australia has nearly doubled since the onset of COVID-19 from 935 workers at end September 2020 to 1807 workers at end March 2021. But only 21 per cent are employed in horticulture while the majority (71 per cent) are in meat processing jobs.

The SWP has failed in the past to grow in response to the high demand for workers at harvest time. A key reason for this has been the government incentive providing a further one-year stay for backpackers on working holiday visas to work in regional areas for three months.

These visa incentives have provided farmers with a ready supply of low-skill workers who are much less costly to hire because they are already in Australia and are responsible for finding their own accommodation.

Just under 32,000 working holiday visa holders granted their second- or third-year visa extension were still in Australia at the end of March 2021. The ratio of backpackers with harvest work experience to SWP workers in Australia at the end of March 2021 was nearly four to one.

This ratio is higher than the pre-COVID-19 ratio of three to one. Despite the frequent media reports of labour shortages for the harvest and a flow-on effect for fruit and vegetable prices, some farmers have been able to recruit backpackers and international students to harvest their crops.

Despite the higher costs involved, some employers — especially those in remote locations — decided to recruit SWP workers. These employers encountered a range of obstacles, including having to arrange and pay for expensive chartered flights.

They also had to cope with long delays in gaining the approval of state medical officers acting out of an abundance of caution. Once workers arrived, employers had to pay for workers to be accommodated in supervised quarantine.

The major sending countries have reluctantly agreed to allow their citizens to go once it was clear that Australia was COVID-19 free. But these same governments have also been reluctant to accept returning workers, fearing that their health facilities will not be able to cope with the spread of the virus.

Pacific governments have also been concerned about paying the cost for supervised quarantine of returning workers. At least in the case of Vanuatu, the Australian government has agreed to pay the cost of quarantine for returning SWP workers.

COVID-19 has highlighted the underlying governance problems of the SWP as a tightly regulated migration pathway. Resolving these problems requires new, separate bilateral agreements between Australia and each of the sending countries.

These new agreements should include regular high-level meetings between government ministers. The focus of these meetings should be to lift the performance of both the sending and receiving countries to make the SWP more flexible and responsive to the needs of both employers and workers.

This article was published by the East Asia Forum.