13 May 2008
Social Policy Section
Recent reports and commentary in Australia
National Farmers Federation
The Labor Government
Senate Committee report on harvest labour
Joint Standing Committee report on Australia s aid program in the Pacific
Pacific Labour and Australian Horticulture Project
Australian Strategic Policy Institute
New Zealand s Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme
Provisions of the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme
Countries included in the scheme
Length of permits
Transitioning to Recognised Seasonal Employer policy
Reports on the progress of the RSE scheme and issues that have arisen
Business and employers
New Zealand National Party
Issues with living and working conditions
Links to information sources
There have been calls for the introduction of a guest-worker scheme in Australia for decades, however, previous Governments have ruled out such a program. Recently, the Federal Government and Opposition have stated that they would be prepared to consider such a scheme based on reports of the progress of the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme currently in place in New Zealand. The Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme is the latest in a long history of programs to bring temporary workers from Pacific nations into New Zealand. The RSE scheme and its progress will need to be considered within the context of major differences between the Australian and New Zealand immigration programs, agricultural sector and labour regulations.
This Background Note presents a brief overview of recent reports and commentary on the subject in Australia, details the background and provisions of the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme in New Zealand, identifies issues that have arisen in the short history of the current scheme and provides links to further information.
The following outlines recent reports on the issue of a seasonal guest-worker scheme in Australia as well as comments by Government and Opposition members.
The National Farmers Federation (NFF) has been one of the loudest proponents for a seasonal guest-worker scheme in Australia for many years. Most recently, the NFF released a report outlining projected labour shortages in the agricultural sector as well as a possible model that a seasonal guest-worker scheme could follow in order to meet these shortages. The NFF s Labour Shortage Action Plan, released in April 2008, estimated that there would be a need for an additional 100 000 agricultural workers over the coming years. The Workforce from Abroad Employment Scheme recommends a pilot program and provides details of a possible model for how the scheme would work. The proposed pilot is similar to New Zealand s RSE scheme in terms of its focus on Pacific nations and the requirements it places on employers.
Unions have traditionally been strongly opposed to a guest-worker scheme in Australia due to concerns with Australian workers losing employment opportunities, the possible exploitation of foreign workers and lower wages being paid in sectors in which the scheme operates. However, the Australian Workers Union (AWU) recently expressed its support for a seasonal worker scheme with appropriate measures in place to protect Australian jobs and prevent exploitation of employees and ACTU president, Sharon Burrow, also gave qualified support for more Pacific Island and East Timorese workers coming into Australia. The AWU s National Secretary, Paul Howes, stated that a guest-worker scheme would benefit the Australian economy and would support Pacific Island nations. A number of unions have recently expressed their opposition to such a scheme with Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union national secretary, John Sutton, writing:
There is a tried and true nation building formula that has stood us in good stead and we need to return to it. It s called training our own people, particularly our youth, and committing to a strong permanent migration program.
Those employers who use the constant refrain of We can t get Australians to do hard and dirty work ought to stop leaving the last three words off their complaint. Those three words, at low pay , tell the real story.
Members of the Federal Government have recently stated that they are considering the introduction of a seasonal worker program but are awaiting an assessment of New Zealand s RSE scheme. The Hon Duncan Kerr SC MP, Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, announced in a recent speech that:
Australia will examine the possibility of a seasonal Pacific labour mobility scheme and will review the findings of a New Zealand trial. We want to test the Australian demand for seasonal labour and the receptiveness to a pilot program ahead of the Pacific Island Forum in Niue in August.
Foreign Minister, the Hon Stephen Smith MP, asked Papua New Guinea to prepare a formal paper on possible seasonal labour arrangements during the 18th Australia-PNG Ministerial Forum on 24 April 2008 and indicated the probability of an announcement at the Pacific Island Forum in August.
The previous Coalition Government was not in favour of a seasonal worker scheme stating that, in their view, the aim of the immigration program should be to encourage permanent settlement in Australia. At the 2005 Pacific Island Forum, then Prime Minister John Howard responded to a question on his opinion of a seasonal worker scheme, saying:
Well we have had some long standing reservations about the concept. We apply an open, non-discriminatory immigration policy and people from the Pacific Island area come in increasing numbers. We have always had a preference for permanent settlement or permanent migration There are some fundamental issues involved in seasonal workers and it s not something that in the past Australia has felt inclined to embrace and it s not something that we change our policy on regularly.
I think you either invite somebody to your country to stay as a permanent resident or a citizen or you don t. 
At the same time, Mr Howard announced that Australia would introduce a training scheme for Pacific Islanders allowing them to gain qualifications necessary to enter Australia under skilled migration visas.
The Hon Peter Costello MP, the then Treasurer, reiterated the Coalition s opposition to a guest-worker scheme at a meeting of Pacific finance ministers in 2006:
Australia has never been a guest worker country. We ve never been a country where we bring you in and ship you out I don t think Australia will be a guest worker country and I don t think Australians want to see that.
A number of Nationals MPs stated their support for the use of seasonal workers from the Pacific whilst in Government including Kay Hull, member for Riverina, who believed that it would be a more hands-on and effective form of aid .
Since the 2007 federal election and following the introduction of New Zealand s RSE scheme in the same year, members of the Coalition have stated that they are willing to examine the possibility of a similar program for Australia. The Leader of the Opposition, the Hon Brendan Nelson MP, recently stated:
In relation to the guest worker program per se, we re having a very close look at the experience that the New Zealanders are having as they go through the process of trialling it. I think there s a lot of support in Australia for the idea of a limited guest worker program Obviously we are mindful of the fact that we want to make sure that every Australian that is able to work is able to actually get a job before bringing in more people from overseas. But, we re also mindful of the fact that it s a very effective way of getting aid into Pacific nations We have an open mind on this 
Former Foreign Minister, the Hon Alexander Downer MP, has also stated recently that he was not against a seasonal worker scheme and that:
It s something that needs to be examined I think, and I ve always thought that. I argued that in years gone by.
In 2006, the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Education issued a report on harvest labour which held that there were not enough reasons to introduce such a seasonal guest-worker scheme. The preface to the report stated that, at the time:
Any exploration of policy which includes in other categories of entry a proposal for admitting foreign workers is likely to be vulnerable to populist sentiment at this time.
This is clearly understood by both governments and oppositions. It is one reason for the clearly expressed view of the government that a harvest labour scheme which involves foreign workers is out of the question. The reasons for this are, in part, historical, and in part, to do with employment priorities and the just wage. Such views find strong support across the political spectrum.
The report did, however, recommend that contingency planning be put in place for a possible scheme if labour shortages were to make it a clear necessity. The main issues the Committee identified regarding the introduction of such a scheme were:
- the form of the agreement that would have to be negotiated with Pacific nations
- the level, extent and form of regulation over the scheme
- how recruitment, contracting and distribution of labour would occur
- how pay and working conditions would be determined
- how transport and accommodation would be arranged and paid for and
- who would have responsibility for the welfare for workers and their social needs.
In September 2007, the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade released their report into Australia s aid program in the Pacific. The report s third recommendation stated:
The Committee notes the evidence of the importance to Pacific Island economies of access to developed economies for seasonal workers, and recommends an active and serious evaluation by the Australian Government of the possibility of such a scheme.
In his submission to the committee, the Executive Director of the Australia Papua New Guinea Business Council, Australia Fiji Business Council and the Australia Pacific Islands Business Council, Frank Yourn, stated that the issue of labour mobility in the region was one:
by which Australia s relations with the Pacific will be judged over the next few years. It may indeed become the single most important issue in Australia s relations with the Pacific, so strongly are the Pacific island governments supporting this I think it will happen, and it should happen soon.
Peter Mares and Nic Maclellan s research project for Swinburne University of Technology s Institute for Social Research, focused on the benefits of increased labour mobility between Australia and the Pacific. They produced a number of reports and papers on the issue and undertook research into the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, described by Mares as arguably one of the best schemes of its kind in the world . Mares and Maclellan argue that there are precedents for country-specific immigration schemes in Australia and that a number of key concerns with the program can be dismissed. They state that the long-running Canadian program provides evidence that the fear of over-stayers in such guest-worker schemes is exaggerated and that there are far-reaching positive effects on the countries involved. The conclusion reached from their research is that:
Seasonal employment programs for Pacific Islanders to work in Australian horticulture are not a panacea for the challenges of unemployment and underemployment in Pacific Island Forum Members. Nor will such schemes by themselves transform the economic development prospects of small island states. Nevertheless, a seasonal labour program does have the potential to make a material difference to the well-being of significant numbers of Pacific Island workers and their families and communities especially those living in rural areas and outer islands.
In March 2008, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute released the report, Engaging our neighbours: Towards a new relationship between Australia and the Pacific Islands, which recommended that Pacific Islanders be given access to seasonal jobs in Australia. The taskforce which authored the report found that:
Australia would benefit economically from meeting the requests of Pacific Island countries for access to those labour markets which have critical labour shortages, and Pacific communities would benefit from the inflow of remittances.
The report highlights the importance of remittances to Pacific Isla nd economies. It also warns against linking any labour market access program to the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations and argues that Australia should seek concessions such as improved access for Australians seeking work in the Pacific. The report states that:
Australia should take early steps to follow New Zealand s lead in establishing a program that allows Pacific Islanders to be given priority in gaining seasonal work opportunities in horticulture and viticulture.
New Zealand s Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme
The New Zealand Government introduced a Seasonal Work Permit (SWP) scheme in 2005 07 which allowed the horticulture and viticulture sectors to hire workers on a temporary basis during peak times, particularly workers from surrounding Pacific Island nations. Previous schemes in which New Zealand made bilateral arrangements with individual Pacific nations had been disbanded but the need for workers during harvest times and other peak periods provoked the more recent push for a guest-worker scheme.
The SWP was deemed a success and a necessary means of coping with labour shortages in those sectors by both the New Zealand Government and Opposition. In October 2006, at the Pacific Island Forum, Prime Minister Helen Clark announced the introduction of the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme to replace the SWP. The new scheme won the backing from a number of Pacific Island nations who were to make their own investments in the scheme but was criticised by the New Zealand National Party for what it saw as a rushed introduction and onerous conditions being placed on employers. At the time of its implementation, seen as a trial, preference was given to workers from Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Having being judged a success, the RSE scheme has since expanded to include other Pacific countries.
The RSE scheme was to take over from the SWP program in April 2007 but after calls from employers and other groups for more time to meet the conditions of the scheme, the SWP policy was extended until September 2007 and a Transitioning to Recognised Seasonal Employer (TRSE) policy was introduced which is to run through to November 2009. Both the RSE and TRSE are now running concurrently in New Zealand allowing guest workers to come into the country to work for approved employers in the horticulture and viticulture industries. There are also a number of other visa schemes that have been in place for an extended period which are aimed at bringing in skilled migrants from Pacific Island nations.
The RSE scheme was established as a means for employers to meet labour needs in peak times with unskilled workers from overseas when they are unable to fill positions with workers from New Zealand. It is available for businesses in the horticulture and viticulture sectors to recruit workers to come and plant, maintain, harvest and pack crops. The RSE scheme places a number of requirements and conditions on employers in order to participate in the scheme. They are also responsible for employees meeting the requirements of their permits. There are currently 5000 places available each year under the scheme and preference is given to workers from a select list of Pacific Island nations.
In order to hire workers under the scheme employers must first apply to the New Zealand Department of Labour for recognition as a Recognised Seasonal Employer. In order to gain recognition, businesses must be a New Zealand employer and demonstrate:
- a sound financial position
- policies for human resources management and high standards of practice
- that they promote the welfare of workers
- a commitment to recruiting and training New Zealand citizens and residents and
- that they have previously abided by all immigration and employment laws.
Once recognised, employers must apply for an Agreement to Recruit (ATR). Under an ATR an employer must:
- make reasonable attempts to recruit and train New Zealanders for the job
- pay market rates
- pay half the return airfare between New Zealand and the worker s country of residence
- ensure workers have access to accommodation, food and health services at a reasonable cost
- take responsibility for the supervision of workers
- inform the Department of Labour of any breaches of conditions on the part of the employee or of any disputes they have with the employer
- pay for any costs (to a maximum of NZ$3000) for the repatriation of a worker if they breach any of the terms and conditions of their permit and
- avoid using recruitment agencies which charge workers a commission for securing an employment agreement.
There are a number of preferred countries whose workers must be given precedence under the RSE scheme. They are: Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu or Vanuatu. Fiji was removed from the list of preferred countries following the December 2006 military coup.
Workers can be hired from other countries if the employer can demonstrate an existing relationship with another country, reasonable attempts to hire from one of the above Pacific countries or can show why workers cannot be recruited from one of those countries listed.
Meeting the above requirements, an employer can make a job offer to a worker and then sign an employment agreement with them which must be for no more than seven months (or nine months for workers from Kiribati and Tuvalu). There are provisions for workers to extend their period with the same employer where this is deemed necessary but this must have approval from Immigration New Zealand.
Once an offer of employment has been received, workers apply to Immigration New Zealand for a limited purpose visa. These visas prevent them from applying for other visas or permits during their stay and they cannot lodge an appeal if they overstay the limit of their visa. Employees under the scheme have a responsibility to abide by the conditions of their visa and employment agreement.
Workers must pass health and character checks before being given a permit and those who are HIV-positive are not eligible for a visa or permit under the RSE.
The TRSE policy allows employers who are not able to meet the requirements of the RSE scheme but are working towards it to hire overseas workers who are already in the country for seasonal work. The scheme was introduced following criticisms from businesses and the New Zealand National Party over the introduction of the RSE and the fact that many businesses may not have been eligible before its implementation in 2007. The TRSE is to run until November 2009.
Employers seeking TRSE approval must:
- sign a statement of intent to become a Recognised Seasonal Employer under the scheme
- have made reasonable attempts to hire New Zealand workers and
- ensure workers have access to accommodation.
From November 2008, employers will also have to provide evidence that they have made efforts to become eligible as Recognised Seasonal Employers under the RSE scheme.
Employers are given a quota for the number of workers who have TRSE work permits that they can employ. Workers must apply for these TRSE permits separately. The TRSE permits are only given for four months. There are a set number available dependent on the number of TRSE approved businesses. Workers are not eligible for them if they have held other permits for a total of seven months out of the previous twelve.
The RSE has only been running for a short period of time and there has as yet been no systematic analysis or official report of its progress. The scheme was launched in April 2007 and has been fully operational since October 2007. The following outlines recent statements from stakeholders in the scheme, the views of the New Zealand National Party and media articles on issues raised since its introduction.
Businesses in the New Zealand horticulture and viticulture sector have been widely supportive of bringing in guest workers from the Pacific Islands as labour shortages have been a critical issue for the industry over recent years. However, a number have expressed concern that there are not enough workers coming in and that the obligations they are forced to meet are difficult to comply with.
An article from the New Zealand Herald in January 2007 suggested that despite the 5000 workers arriving as part of the RSE scheme, there would still be a labour shortage of thousands of workers for the harvest season. A spokesperson on seasonal labour for the industry group, Horticulture New Zealand, stated that the RSE scheme was hellishly complicated and only the largest growers had signed up or were able to meet the requirements it placed on employers. A previous article from the New Zealand Herald, reported that prior to the introduction of the RSE up to 80 per cent of contractors who supplied seasonal labour were acting illegally.
A recent story from the ABC s Foreign Correspondent program on the RSE spoke to a representative of the kiwifruit packing business Aongatete Coolstores who described the RSE scheme as born of necessity with simply not enough workers available:
The alternatives aren't worth bearing or thinking about. If you can't pack the fruit, what are you going to do? You can't get the work done - the growers are losing, we as a company are going to lose, and New Zealand as a country would lose a tremendous amount of money.
Other industries are also looking at using a similar scheme of bringing in Pacific Island workers. The New Zealand Meat Industry Association recently held meetings with Government and unions about bringing in up to a thousand workers to meet labour shortfalls.
A recent article on a visit by the New Zealand Minister of Pacific Island Affairs, Winnie Laban, and the Minister for Building, Shane Jones, to one employer participating in the scheme quoted Jones praising its success:
It is the first year and employers have to bear with the bureaucracy . . . But it (RSE) has a bright future I have no doubt about that.
The ministers noted concerns with the efficiency of the recruitment and employment process with growers calling for a more streamlined process to vary work-permit conditions.
New Zealand National Party
The New Zealand National Party supports a seasonal work program which brings in workers from Pacific nations but was initially highly critical of the RSE scheme believing that it had a hasty introduction and that there were onerous conditions being placed on employers. In Parliament on 16 August, 2007, the National s immigration spokesperson, Dr Lockwood Smith, stated that his party did not support the RSE and was critical on the grounds that it was a means of introducing change to the business practices of the horticulture and viticulture industries:
(The RSE) is causing massive problems around New Zealand, which can be seen if one goes to any region where there is horticulture or viticulture. The Minister knows that I have right here a paper prepared for him by his officials. What is scary about it is that his officials are telling him that for a significant proportion of the horticulture industry the transition to the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme requires no less than a new business model involving major change in culture and practice. The unions have told the Minister they are right behind this. The unions are using the Recognised Seasonal Employer programme to impose what they want on the horticulture and viticulture industries.
The Recognised Seasonal Employer policy is so dumb; he does not know how to try to meet the industry s needs.
The New Zealand National Party also raised concerns in Parliament prior to the introduction of the RSE scheme over the possible exploitation of workers and with employees overstaying their permit.
There are no current figures on the number of people who have over-stayed their work permits under the RSE scheme. The scheme requires that employers take responsibility for employees meeting the requirements of their permits and for leaving the country when it has expired. Employers can be charged up to NZ$3000 to cover the cost of repatriation of over-stayers. The previous Seasonal Work Permit did not place the same requirements on employers and there were reported to be a large number of over-stayers.
Under the RSE, employers are made to ensure that workers are able to access adequate accommodation, transport, social activities, and, that they receive the award wage. The Department of Labour conducts inspections to ensure that these requirements are met.
The New Zealand Herald recently reported the case of Saia Aholelei from Tonga who complained of cramped sleeping conditions and not enough money being left after accommodation and other costs were paid. Another group of Tongan workers was reported as having left due to dissatisfaction with the amount they were being paid. The Tongan Minister for Labour, Commerce and Industries, Lisate Akolo, responded to these reports stating that they were inaccurate, that Saia Aholelei had a history of workplace problems and that the other workers from Tonga in his group were more than happy with both their wages and living conditions.
Links to information, background and arguments regarding the RSE scheme and the possible introduction of a scheme in Australia are presented below.
Immigration New Zealand provides links to details of the RSE and TRSE schemes on its webpage: Employing Seasonal Workers
Adrienne Millbank, A seasonal guest-worker program for Australia?, Parliamentary Library Research Brief no. 16, 2005 06, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 5 May 2006. This paper provides an analysis of the history of the push for a seasonal guest-worker program in Australia as well as the reasons for and against the introduction of such a program.
Peter Mares, Objection to Pacific seasonal work programs in rural Australia , Public Policy, v.2(1), 2007, pp. 68 87. Peter Mares has been a long-time advocate for a seasonal guest-worker scheme in Australia and in this article he examines different objections that have been put forward against the idea.
Peter Mares and Nic Maclellan, Pacific Seasonal Workers for Australian Horticulture: A Neat Fit?, Asia and Pacific Migration Journal, v.16(2), 2007. This article, produced as part of the Pacific Labour and Australian Horticulture Project at Swinburne University of Technology, argues for a seasonal guest-worker scheme and provides analysis of Canada s seasonal worker program.
National Farmers Federation, Workforce from Abroad Employment Scheme, National Farmers Federation Ltd., 2008. This report outlines areas of labour shortage in the agricultural sector and outlines a possible model for a guest-worker program.
Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Education, Perspectives on the future of the harvest labour force, Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Education, Canberra, 2006. The Senate Committee received a large number of submissions regarding the introduction of a seasonal guest-worker scheme. The idea was rejected in its final report.
Independent Task Force, Engaging our neighbours: Towards a new relationship between Australia and the Pacific Islands, report for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, ASPI, Canberra, 2008. This report recommends a number of different strategies for Australia to engage with Pacific Island nations including increased labour mobility.
Richard Bedford, Elsie Ho & Vasantha Krishnan, The neighbourhood effect: the Pacific in Aotaearoa and Australia , Asian and Pacific Migration Journal, Vol. 16, No. 2, 2007. This article includes a history of New Zealand s guest-worker schemes with Pacific Island countries.
For copyright reasons some linked items are only available to members of Parliament.