Another defining theme made prominent to the Sub-Committee through submissions and public hearings was the strategic linkage between labour mobility programmes with the Pacific and its impact on trade and investment ties with Australia.
Two key cornerstone labour mobility initiatives are operated by the Australian Government in collaboration with Pacific partners. In particular, the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP), which is administered by Australia’s Department of Education, Skills and Employment, and the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS), administered by DFAT.
It is important to note that as most submissions to the inquiry particularly highlighted the SWP prior to the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on international travel restriction when discussing labour mobility activities, consequential of PLS’ fairly recent implementation, this chapter will focus predominantly on the SWP.
This chapter examines the core tenets of the SWP, and its associated advantages and disadvantages to Pacific trade and investment. The chapter then concludes with an investigation as to how the SWP could be reformed to provide greater effectiveness and overarching success.
Overview of the Seasonal Worker Programme
The ANU Development Policy Centre believed the temporary migration programs, such as Australia’s Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) and the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS), have provided welcome new opportunities for the Pacific (including Timor Leste) to work in Australia. Prior to the COVID-19 travel restrictions, the Policy Centre noted the SWP, which began in 2012, had been growing rapidly in recent years with 12,200 visas approved for 2018-19.
SWP visa approvals were on track to increase for 2019-20, however due to Australia’s international border closure to non-permanent residents and non-citizens in March 2020, the number of SWP visa approvals for 2019-20 is only 8,594.
According to the Griffith Asia Institute, by 2030 the number of Pacific seasonal workers travelling to Australia and New Zealand each year could reach 50,000.
Labour mobility initiatives play a significant role in trade and investment ties between Australia, New Zealand and Pacific partners. In 2019 alone, more than 12,000 workers participated in Australia’s SWP, supporting temporary work in fruit picking and other horticultural jobs in rural and regional areas.
Consequently, according to Professor Ronald Duncan AO of the Australian National University, Australia has increasingly recognised the benefits of labour mobility initiatives, including the SWP, to deliver economies benefits to all stakeholders.
In particular, remittances form a large part of Pacific island economies. Taking Tonga as an example, research from the Australian National University highlighted Tonga’s aggregate net SWP earnings have more than tripled from $11.7 million in 2012-13 to $36.5 million in 2018-19. In turn, this means SWP net earnings by Tongan workers in 2018-19 exceeded Australia’s aid to Tonga and imports from Tonga both separately and combined.
Programme administrator, the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) outlines the administrative structure of the SWP as split across relevant Australian Public Service (APS) agencies. In particular, whilst the SWP is managed by DESE, this is achieved in consultation with DFAT, the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Department of Home Affairs.
In a broad sense, DESE defines the SWP as providing:
Employment opportunities for workers from nine participating Pacific Island countries and Timor Leste to meet seasonal labour needs in the agriculture sector, and the accommodation sector (in certain locations) where there is insufficient local labour supply available.
DESE’s submission to the Sub-committee further identified the methods of recruitment for seasonal workers, noting three distinct pathways:
Through an appointed or licensed agent (appointed or licensed by the sending country); or
Direct recruitment by employers.
Further, DESE notes that each participating country selects the recruitment pathway/s that will be available to citizens of that country. As such, DESE identified that the Australian Government has no direct involvement in the recruitment processes undertaken in each country.
Figure 5.1 visually outlines the available recruitment streams available to workers in each participating Pacific country:
Figure 5.1: Available recruitment methods in participating countries
Department of Education, Skills and Employment, Submission 31, p.4.
In addition to maintaining responsibility over selecting available recruitment methods, participating Pacific countries are also responsible for ensuring eligible candidates meet relevant criteria. The criteria specifies that candidates must be:
Be a citizen of the participating country;
Have their identity verified; and
Have a genuine intention to return to the participating country following the conclusion of their employment.
Ms Margaret Kidd, First Assistant Secretary, Delivery and Employer Engagement Division, Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) confirmed that each of the 10 countries involved in SWP have labour-sending units established within the country. Returning workers from previous stints are also highly sought after by employers.
They do the prescreening of applicants in those labour-sending units. They’ll apply some eligibility criteria, which go to age, health and a range of other criteria, and they will do the screening and have those people in the labour-sending units. Separately to that, when workers have been out before often there’s an established relationship with a particular approved employer and so they may request individual workers to come back. We know there’s a big jump-up in productivity of returned workers, so it’s quite a popular thing for approved employers to request the same workers back.
Assistant Secretary at the Seasonal Work Programs Branch, DESE, Ms Helen McCormack, confirmed that employers often want the same workers from the same countries back, and more than half do return.
…it is a demand-driven program as well and so it is approved employer demand and that could drive where they get their workers from…there’s been a number of returnees over the duration of the program since 2012—around 54 per cent are returnees. So, when it’s demand-driven, the approved employers are probably more likely to go back to the same country and get the returning workers because it increases productivity.
Considering this figure, DESE identified the SWP as continuously monitored according to a program assurance framework. This framework works to safeguard the success of the SWP initiative, providing a trajectory to deal effectively with associated risks. This trajectory maps risk mitigation factors of prevention and deterrence, detection, correction and subsequent corrective action.
Evidently, the SWP’s fundamental objectives to support employment and economic growth impact the economies of Australia and Pacific neighbours simultaneously. This is but one advantage of SWP identified in submissions.
Further, DESE emphasises that an employee’s completion of the SWP is organised around a specific set of milestones, some of which are identified in the following graphic of SWP worker journey shown as Figure 5.3:
Her Excellency Ms Hinauri Petana, High Commissioner in Australia for the Independent State of Samoa welcomed how the Pacific Labour Scheme is managed under DFAT by an outsourced ‘…entity that’s totally focused on the PLS’ as a way to also manage the SWP.
Also, the operation of the PLS is outsourced under the guidance of PLF and DFAT. So, in some ways, there’s a separation of policy, operation and oversight in that respect, which makes it much clearer. On the other hand, I think the SWP, which is the scheme that has been operating longer but is also the biggest, still has issues. I think it’s the bureaucratic setting. You probably need to look at a similar arrangement of outsourcing, or, hopefully, at some point in time, integrating them. The difference, of course, is the time frame: one is short term, six to nine months, and the other one is three years.
Nine banana growing businesses from North Queensland all made submissions stressing the importance of the Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme to their businesses.
One such banana grower, the Mackay Group, outlined that the Mackay family had been growing bananas in Tully, North Queensland, for 75 years and was now Australia’s largest producer employing 550 full time employees 52 weeks a year.
We see it as essential that the Seasonal Worker Program continues. Of the enquiries for work we receive, less than 10 per cent are from Australian citizens or permanent residents, the vast majority are from visa holders.
Harvesting jobs are not desired by Australians who dislike the physical nature of the work and the need to relocate to remote areas. This is why this work is predominantly done by visa holders, as it is in many countries like the EU and the USA.
The CTR Banana Group from Mareeba North Queensland agreed with the on-going need for workers from the Pacific for fruit and vegetable growers despite the numbers of jobless Australians.
It is a difficult time with rising unemployment. However, it is critical that we acknowledge the structure of the Seasonal Workers Programme, and any change would likely trigger an inability to supply fruit and vegetables to Australian families. It would also jeopardise related jobs, on and off farm, that are done by Australian residents (one Australian is employed because of three seasonal workers).
All the banana growers, who submitted, supported the continued development of the Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme as ‘…key elements of our relationship with each Pacific Island country’.
Mr Daniel Alcock, the director of Justeatum banana producers who employ seasonal workers as their harvesting workforce, stressed that both the SWP and PLS ‘…provide substantial benefits’ to Australia and also Pacific nations where workers come from, and to ‘…his farming business’.
The COVID-19 travel restrictions had greatly impacted on the SWP, according to Ms Kidd from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment.
Since COVID hit and the borders were closed, we’ve been working very closely on ensuring that the Seasonal Worker Program could continue to the extent possible. This has involved looking at workers who remained in the country, looking at where the work is and redeploying where appropriate. We’ve got something like 6,300 seasonal workers in the country at the moment. It’s a lot lower than you would expect given the growth over past years, but that’s primarily due to the border closures. We’ve redeployed most of the workers throughout the year. A typical model would be workers would come over on a nine-month visa, would stay in that role and then would return home. Given they haven’t been able to return home, we’ve concentrated on redeploying them to where the work is. Obviously that’s had some constraints in terms of internal border closures and quarantine requirements, and obviously we’re mindful of the health and safety of the workers.
Ms Kidd outlined included some new measures, including additional numbers of what DESE called Pacific Labour Mobility Officers.
We’ve got a fleet of officers across the country, 19 in total, that will help engage with the workers and farmers at the coalface. Their remit is around contract management and program assurance, and, importantly, the welfare of workers.
Ms Kidd denied the SWP would contribute to any risk of a loss of skilled workers wanting to relocate permanently from their home islands.
There is the fact that it is short term by nature; it is a seasonal program…generally the visa is up to nine months. The workers will come out and they’ll earn good money. The remittances are incredibly significant for the Pacific, including contribution to GDP and also, obviously, individual family improvements. There are a lot of very strong positives with that, but the workers do go back at the end of the period and go back home. They do have an opportunity to return [to Australia]. I think up to 95 per cent of them are interested in returning—when we asked them…and we’ve had a very high return rate. So there’s coming and going—a fly in, fly out, if you like.
From a Solomon Islands’ perspective, PACER Plus is about labour mobility which presents an important opportunity for Solomon Islanders according to Solomon Islands High Commissioner His Excellency Mr Robert Sisilo. High Commissioner Sisilo noted more than 500 men and women from his country had come to Australia to work in the SWP between 2012 and 2018, and fewer under the PLS.
Under the Pacific Labour Scheme, launched in 2018, we now have about 80 workers here, including four women who have worked in aged-care homes for three years. They are our first women to be engaged in aged-care facilities in Australia. Our Labour Mobility Strategy 2019-2023 has identified Australia as the market with the highest potential for growth, and by 2023 we plan to have almost 50 per cent of Solomon Islands labour mobility workers in the Seasonal Workers Program and the Pacific Labour Scheme, and the total number of migrant workers to migrate to Australia for work under either the SWP or PLS is projected to grow to 2,600 in 2023. Increasing employment opportunities present enormous opportunities for both countries, addressing labour and skills shortage in Australia while also increasing economic security in households in Solomon Islands.
Overview of the Pacific Labour Scheme
Given the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) is in its infancy, DFAT submitted before the COVID-19 travel restrictions that it expected participation in the PLS to keep increasing as shown in Figure 5.2, despite the scheme only beginning in 2018.
The PLS remains in its infancy but has seen significant early interest across multiple sectors, signalling strong future growth potential, especially for regions and industries with labour shortages, including meat processing, hospitality and aged care.
We expect the link between labour mobility and skills transfer to strengthen over time, as PLS workers spend longer in Australia in higher skilled roles and in a greater variety of sectors.
The Development Policy Centre agreed the PLS, which allows work for up to three years and in different sectors, is still a new scheme with potential.
…there are currently 981participants in the scheme, with workers from Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, PNG, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, and Vanuatu.
The Director of the Pacific Economic Trade and Private Sector Engagement Section at DFAT, Mr Cameron Reid, highlighted the whole-of-government coordination effort for the DFAT-run PLS including working ‘really closely with Pacific island governments and the labour sending units from Pacific Island governments’.
We have very close relationships with them, and they’ll often send delegations across and go talk to their workers around Australia, and we will accompany them, together with the department of employment. As Danielle said, they also have liaison officers. There are a number of Pacific island countries which have liaison officers based in Australia. We think that’s one of the most effective and critical ways to get early warnings of any issues going on so we can resolve them quickly, either through the whole of government or through the Pacific Labour Facility. That’s the other element: the Pacific Labour Facility, managed by Palladium, has a very strong worker-welfare team. That’s a core element of our work in this space. They have expertise around resettlement issues, social welfare and social services...
Figure 5.2: PLS visa grants per quarter from 2018 to 2019
Dept. of Foreign Affairs and Trade, ACIAR, Austrade & Export Finance Australia, Submission 14, p.24.
Figure 5.3: SWP Worker Journey
Department of Education, Skills and Employment, Submission 31, p.17.
Advantages of the Seasonal Worker Programme
There are several key advantages, identified by witnesses that the SWP achieves in terms of promoting trade and investment flows between Australia and the Pacific. These include:
Direct trade and investment ties;
Earning of remittances; and
Development of soft-skills, including regional connections.
Broad value to regional trade and investment
DFAT’s submission to the Sub-committee recognised the value of labour mobility initiatives such as SWP for stimulating trade and investment across the region.
In particular, DFAT contends that:
Australia’s labour mobility initiatives promote the integration of Pacific Island Countries into Australia’s labour market where there is unmet demand.
Delving deeper into this argument, DFAT noted that:
Increased labour mobility between Australia and Pacific Island Countries will drive trade and investment. Labour mobility benefits Pacific Island Countries by increasing foreign exchange through remittances, building skills and creating business links that can lay the foundation for further economies growth.
DFAT also referenced the existence of unemployment and structural inequalities in the Pacific as underlining the SWP’s potential:
Against a backdrop of high levels of youth unemployment and underemployment, labour mobility also creates job opportunities, positively impacting society more broadly.
Moreover, the benefit to Australia’s economic growth is apparent:
Workers from Pacific Island Countries are also making an important contribution to Australian business in rural and regional Australia by meeting workforce shortages, boosting domestic economic activity and competitiveness.
Thus, from a policy perspective, DFAT reinforces the importance of the SWP and other labour mobility initiatives as a vehicle for stimulating trade and investment flows regionally. Further, as the demand for Pacific workers continues to grow, DFAT argues the SWP will continue to experience strong annual growth and broader societal awareness. Figure 5.4 shows the growth and mix of workers from Polynesian islands such as Tonga, Samoa and Tuvalu with Melanesian islands such as Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji. The Micronesian islands include Kiribati, Palau, Nauru and Federated States of Micronesia.
Figure 5.4: Participants from Polynesia and Melanesia in the SWP
ANU Development Policy Centre, Crawford School of Policy, Submission 52, p. 15 & Dept. of Home Affairs
The popularity of the SWP initiative has become particularly apparent in recent years. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, the number of workers that have participated in Australia’s SWP has more than doubled from 17,320 to nearly 45,000 visa grants in 2015-16, with the expectation that this figure will be tripled by the 2019-20 financial year. Figure 5.5 visualises this growing trend:
Figure 5.5: Visa grants for the SWP from 2012-13 to 2018-19
Dept. of Foreign Affairs and Trade, ACIAR, Austrade & Export Finance Australia, Submission 14, p.23.
The value derived from this sharp rise in SWP participation is apparent in the financial benefits reaped by both Pacific and Australian communities. According to DFAT, income spending increased dramatically on agricultural assets including farm equipment and vehicles.
Additionally, the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance reinforced the importance of the SWP for generating greater workforce participation and support in the fresh produce sector. Specifically:
For the fresh produce sector, the SWP is a key and growing element of Australia’s workforce planning. There are currently up to 12,000 people eligible to participate in the program from across the Pacific and Timor Leste … The SWP is an example of a program with commercial, diplomatic, economic, political and individual benefits.
Growcom, a peak representative body for horticultural industries or growers of fruits, vegetables and nuts in Queensland, Australia, corroborates Australian Fresh Produce Alliance’s support for the SWP. Noting benefits to both Pacific economies and Australia, Growcom notes:
For Pacific Island people, their own labour remains one of their most important exports, remittances one of their most valuable sources of revenue. For Australian businesses producing safe and nutritious fresh vegetables, fruits and nuts for domestic and overseas markets, reliable and industrious employees are highly prized.
Workers from Pacific Islands invariably find employment in the Australian horticultural industry exceptionally rewarding, both monetarily and otherwise. Employers value the work ethic of Pacific Islanders and their ability to easily adapt to the conditions.
The Manager of Policy and Advocacy at Growcom, Mr Richard Shannon, highlighted a dire labour shortage for agricultural industries by the end of 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 travel restrictions.
It’s estimated that we have approximately half the number of backpackers in Australia. We would normally have around 150,000; there are now estimated to be fewer than 70,000. Backpackers have historically made up a significant proportion of our labour force. More growers have relied entirely on backpackers than any other source of labour.
Here in Queensland the department of agriculture has estimated we’ll be short 7,000 workers between now and Christmas. At a national level, Ernst & Young did a piece of work which found that around 2,000 roles will go unfilled in Australia, peaking in March next year. There’s an enormous opportunity for Pacific islanders to fill this gap. We don’t expect backpackers to return to this country in anywhere near the sorts of numbers we’ve seen historically any time soon.
Mr Shannon supported as a ‘…really important decision’ the Queensland government approving four trial flights from Pacific islands to allow workers to quarantine for two weeks on a farm in Queensland.
Following on from the Australian and Northern Territory Governments’ pilot program in August 2020 of allowing in 170 ni-Vanuatu SWP workers for the mango harvest, 150 workers from Tonga arrived in Emerald Queensland on the first charter flight. The workers did the required quarantine on-farm in Emerald, and worked on the harvest while physically isolating from other workers and the local community.
We would love, as an industry, to see more Pacific islanders arrive in Queensland, in Australia, for the purpose of harvesting our crops. We find Pacific Island workers to be far more reliable, dedicated workers than the backpacking cohort. As an industry, that’s all we want. We don’t care necessarily where people come from, just that they are willing and dedicated workers. We’re certainly find that’s the case with Pacific islanders, so we would support an expansion of these programs.
Evidently, from a broad economic standpoint, the SWP carries significant advantages for boosting trade and investment links between Australia and the Pacific.
Importance of remittance flows from labour mobility
Complementing SWP’s broad economic value, remittances, a key advantage associated with the SWP for Pacific countries, should also be highlighted.
According to DFAT, remittances from income generated through Australia’s labour mobility initiatives provide a growing source of income and foreign exchange for economies in the Pacific. In particular:
A report by the World Bank released in 2018 found, on average, SWP workers sent home approximately AUD $9,000 over six months in Australia. This was found to have resulted in a net income gain of an estimated $144 million to the Pacific region (although these benefits are most significant for countries with higher participation including Fiji, Kiribati and Vanuatu).
The ANU’s Development Policy Centre at the Crawford School of Public Policy provided valuable research into the reliance of Pacific communities on remittances generated under programs including the SWP.
According to the Development Policy Centre:
PIC reliance on remittances is highly variable, with Pacific nations represented at either end of the international spectrum. At one extreme, Tonga is the most remittance-dependent nation in the world. At the other, PNG is the third least dependent on remittances in the world.
Figure 5.6 encapsulates this trend identified by the Development Policy Centre, highlighting the varying degrees of remittance-dependency throughout the Pacific region:
Figure 5.6: Remittances as a proportion of GDP
ANU Development Policy Centre, Crawford School of Policy, Submission 52, p. 8 & World Bank 2018 (1=most dependent,178=least dependent)
Recognising the significant role remittances play for Tonga’s GDP, the Development Policy Centre breaks down Tonga’s net GDP earnings further:
Tonga is the biggest SWP participant in per capita terms, and is the leading example of how important seasonal migration opportunities have become to the Pacific. Estimates suggest that net earnings from the SWP now exceed Tonga’s income from aid from Australia and exports to Australia, combined.
The following Figure 5.7 reinforces this argument:
Figure 5.7: Tonga: net earnings from SWP, aid and trade
ANU Development Policy Centre, Crawford School of Policy, Submission 52, p. 16, World Bank 2019 & DFAT
Noting Tonga and the wider-Pacific region’s use of SWP-stimulated remittances as a means of generating broader economic growth, the SWP initiative evidently contributes to strengthening trade and investment ties regionally.
Solomon Islands High Commissioner His Excellency Mr Robert Sisilo urged more needed to be done to lower the cost of workers sending remittances back to home islands. The High Commissioner welcomed the efforts of the International Finance Corporation and World Bank in Tonga to lower costs.
On remittances, I’m told that the average cost of sending remittances from Australia and New Zealand to the Pacific Island countries is among the highest in the world…I understand that the World Bank, through the IFC I think, is seeking to reduce this cost through innovative programs. I think Tonga is a good example of this. I understand that an innovative scheme supported by the World Bank advisory project, under the Tongan Development Bank, I think, has lowered the average cost of sending remittances from Australia and New Zealand back to Tonga…But this is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed, especially now with COVID-19, on remittances by our workers back to their respective countries. People at home are expecting a lot of remittances from their fellow workers in both Australia and, of course, New Zealand.
High Commissioner of Vanuatu His Excellency Mr Samson Vilvil Fare claimed ‘…Vanuatu has the highest cohort of seasonal workers coming’ to Australia, and he also thanked Australia for finding a way through COVID-19 restrictions to allowing 160 workers under a pilot project to go to work in the Northern Territory in late 2020.
…we’re privileged that Australia has chosen Vanuatu in this pilot project under this COVID pandemic.
In terms of remittances, Vanuatu is grateful to be one of the biggest ones sending remittances back home to Vanuatu, to their families, and it has really impacted the community at all levels. But we’ve asked a number of times now that we would like to see, when Vanuatu engages with different departments that are looking after labour mobility, if there could be studies done in Australia to see how much our Vanuatu citizens and our Pacific island countries’ workers are contributing to the Australian economy, especially in the agricultural and horticultural industry here, in the country.
The Solomon Islands Government also highlighted the broad benefits from the employment opportunities under the Australian and New Zealand labour mobility schemes that serve to ‘unlock opportunities in small family business, construction of better homes, support towards education and other family needs and wellbeing of those that participation in the programmes’.
In 2018, a review of the schemes over a ten-year period estimated that up to AU$30 million were remitted [home to Solomon Islands] by those that participated in the Labour Mobility schemes.
Soft-Skills: development of regional connections
Complementing the benefits of boosted trade and investment ties as well as remittance flows, the development of soft-skills, such as regional connections, skills and experience, are also valuable benefits associated with the SWP.
This benefit is recognised by DFAT, who specifically note:
Beyond the monetary value of participation in Australia’s labour mobility initiatives, participants in the SWP have reported benefitting from the transfer of skills and experience gained in Australia.
Elaborating further on direct benefits to Pacific economies:
Many workers are learning more productive methods for growing produce, which have been used in some cases to boost production and start new businesses in their home countries.
At a broader societal level, DFAT highlights the SWP has generated positive effects in:
Improvements in communication skills (including English language usage and presentation skills);
Increased foreign exchange reserves;
Anecdotal evidence of reductions in crimes rates (workers with criminal records cannot participate in Australia’s labour mobility programmes); and
Increased political stability due to a reduction of pressure from demographic shifts.
Likewise, benefits to soft-skills through the SWP also support Australia’s diplomatic ties with Pacific nations. DFAT notes:
Australia’s labour mobility initiatives strengthen Australia’s bilateral relationships with its Pacific neighbours and build important and long-lasting personal relationships and understanding.
Explaining this concept further:
Communities around Australia, including in regional and rural areas, also benefit from Australia’s labour mobility initiatives. PLS and SWP workers reside in these communities, use local services and join local community and sporting organisations. While SWP and PLS workers are temporary residents, demand for this workforce each year creates, in effect, a semi-permanent population of Pacific islanders which local businesses and communities come to rely on for growth.
Senior Research Fellow from Deakin University, Dr Victoria Stead highlighted the importance of kinship and community networks within Pacific Island cultures are widely recognised. Dr Stead believed these networks often extend across countries and oceans, and are ‘…fundamental for supporting good trade and labour relations’.
Dr Stead’s research into the Seasonal Worker Programme found this kinship and sense of community was particularly important to recognise in the context of the SWP.
The temporary nature of the scheme, and the regulatory measures preventing workers bringing family members with them, contribute to a popular understanding of SWP workers as unattached. My research in Australia highlights though that SWP workers are still often connected to extended kinship (family) or community networks, and that these networks are vital to workers’ wellbeing. SWP workers are also often connected to more established Pacific Islander communities, including in regional Australia.
Consequently, it is apparent that significant advantages, pertaining to the SWP and its impact on Pacific-Australia trade and investment ties, exist.
Critically however, it is also important to examine criticisms surrounding the SWP and as such potential avenues of improvement.
Criticisms of the Seasonal Worker Programme
Several common criticisms of the SWP initiative were noted in submissions to the Sub-committee, ranging from excessive administrative and regulatory processes to exploitative working conditions.
Western Sydney University’s Whitlam Institute identified existing ‘expensive, cumbersome and intrusive administrative barriers’ as a key issue limiting the popularity of the SWP.
Further to administrative burdens, exploitative and vulnerable working conditions were consistently reiterated as an area of key concern in submissions. The Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network Ltd (AFTINET) drew particular concern to this aspect of the SWP, raising the exploitation of Pacific workers in areas including:
Lack of payment or payment of less than the minimum wage;
Long hours of work in extreme heat conditions;
Exceeding laws on maximum work hours;
Sub-standard and overcrowded accommodation;
Exploitation by migration agents through misrepresentation and deduction of large sums from wages; and
Employers violating rights to Freedom of Association and collective bargaining by banning union membership.
Identifying the root cause of these problems, AFTINET argues:
Thousands of Pacific Island workers come to Australia each year under the SWP, and other programs included in a non-binding agreement which was negotiated separately from (but in parallel to) PACER Plus. Temporary workers are vulnerable to exploitation because they are sponsored by employers and can be deported if they lose the job. The SWP should include regulation of employers and training of workers to address this vulnerability.
Furthermore, AFTINET contends that PACER Plus, the cornerstone of the Australia-Pacific trade and investment relationship, overlooked labour rights and the opportunity to commit respective governments to implement international agreements to ensure workers are not exploited.
Non-governmental organisation, the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG), concur with AFTINET’s argument. PANG contends that whilst labour mobility was addressed in PACER Plus, its inclusion was contentious as it likened the movement of people to the movement of goods and capital. In turn, PANG contends that by likening labour mobility to stimulating trade and investment, a slippery-slope of worker vulnerability and exploitation can occur as human labour becomes a commodity.
Her Excellency Ms Hinauri Petana, High Commissioner in Australia for the Independent State of Samoa highlighted the issue of Pacific islanders accessing their superannuation collected in Australia when they return home to Samoa.
We have workers who have been here [in Austalia] since the beginning of the SWP, and now the PLS, but especially the SWP, who have gone back and cannot access their superannuation benefits. We are right in the middle of a crisis and many have not been able to be re-engaged or employed. As well as that, there are no means of accessing any other benefit, welfare or otherwise…Essentially, the key point is legislation. There is a requirement to change the laws before we can move on this issue.
His Excellency Mr Samson Vilvil Fare agreed seasonal workers from Vanuatu needed better and easier access to their superannuation funds.
Our workers are still having difficulties in having access to their super. This is something that Vanuatu was looking at very closely before COVID. Unfortunately, COVID-19 came in and stopped everything. We explored the opportunities of probably having our pension fund established in Australia as a super, where our workers can pay their contributions directly into that super.
Ms Danielle Heinecke, First Assistant Secretary, Pacific Operations and Development at DFAT, stressed an important ambition on the agenda was to make it easier for people working under the Pacific labour mobility programs to transfer their superannuation funds to the Pacific.
At the moment they basically can’t transfer it to their provident fund, so that is a future policy agenda that’s going to be really important for the Pacific and for the workers so they don’t lose their super. At the moment they have to go through a process when they get back to their country to claim that super back, which can be difficult if they’re from an outer island. So that’s something that’s very much one of the policy priorities that we’re working through with the Pacific, and it will require change in Australia as well, on the legislative side.
The Director, Pacific Economic Trade and Private Sector Engagement Section at DFAT, Mr Cameron Reid, detailed the complexity.
…that’s a process of closing their super account in Australia, getting that money deposited into a local bank account in their home country and then getting that deposited into a provident fund. There’s no mechanism by which we can go straight from our super funds in Australia to the provident funds in the Pacific, and that’s the legislative process on our side...
Ms Heinecke outlined the importance of the role of the employer in the Seasonal Worker Program, who ‘…actually play the main role around welfare’ but also defended the audit processes in place to help workers with workplace and welfare issues.
What is really important there is the Department of Employment’s own compliance checks and the role that they play—they do monthly audits as well, but that’s something really for you to go into detail with…So we’re putting a lot more effort into the pre-departure briefings. The Fair Work Ombudsman now produces material in, I think, seven different Pacific languages on people’s rights. This is all very new, as I’m sure you’re aware, for them. The Fair Work Ombudsman also has an app, the Record My Hours app, which you may be aware of, where people can put their pay. They can record their hours in that app so if there’s a problem down the track the hotline that we set up in the country and the comms team that correspond with workers in Australia can actually come and help them if they’ve got a query around their pay.
There is a cultural issue in many ways. People don’t want to complain, because they think that might jeopardise their future opportunities. That is the biggest barrier. It is one of the reasons that around half of our staff who sit on the welfare team are Pacific Islanders.
But what are really important are the compliance checks that happen through the Fair Work Ombudsman, so that we can start to make sure that people understand what their rights are and that those cases are taken forward.
High Commissioner Vilvil Fare outlined that limited health insurance coverage was another big issue faced by workers from Vanuatu who are also paying taxes and GST while in Australia.
This is mainly because each labour hire company or employer has a different plan for them and sometimes, when you look at the plans they offer, they are the cheapest plans out there that they offer them. My question is: why is it that? Because our workers come to Australia and they work here, but they also pay GST and taxes here in Australia. How about giving them access to Medicare as well so that they can be fully insured? In terms of health insurance, maybe give them the same packages as backpackers when they come to Australia to work here, so give them that same ability to have access to Medicare, if that could be possible.
High Commissioner Petana said Samoa does raise issues with DFAT and DESE, with respect to things like superannuation access and insurance cover.
…and contract issues, in terms of letters of offer that have been the starting point of engaging on island. In some groups, they’ve seen a shift from the original letters of offer. Unfortunately, there is an issue which is basically about literacy or language barriers that contributes to the lack of understanding. I know there’s a lot of predeparture briefing that goes on.
High Commissioner Petana also recommended Australia following New Zealand’s lead in helping employers to build a better cultural understanding of where their season workers come from.
One of the things that Samoa has found which is quite advantageous, because we’ve had longer experience with the [Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme] in New Zealand, is the enculturation process of recruitment. On an annual basis, employers are encouraged to visit the villages of their workers. Because of the bonding that’s been established, they’re also allowed to bring on board two members of the village or a member of the family so that social cohesion is maintained in the group.
Following discussions with other High Commissioners, High Commissioner Petana understood that while some Australian worker programs are relatively new compare to New Zealand, there was a tendency to treat all workers from across the Pacific as more or less the same people.
We understand that the perspective from which Australia recruits is that we’re from the Pacific. Yes, we may look the same and we may have traditions and cultures that are quite similar, but in actual fact they’re very different entities—Melanesian, Polynesian. So, it’s in that mix that we come as a group. There’s no homogeneity, in either the type of work they’re engaged in or the locations, so you have some of these issues cropping up.
Senior Research Fellow from Deakin University, Dr Victoria Stead, drew on her SWP-focussed research project Race, Labour and Belonging: Strengthening Rural Workforces and Communities shared some workers’ concerns about the scheme. Dr Stead’s research, conducted from 2016 onwards on Pacific Islander workers, farmers and Pacific diaspora in the Greater Shepparton Region of Victoria, highlighted the impact of socio-economic inequalities on the workers.
These inequalities underpin, and indeed set the conditions of possibility that enable schemes like the Seasonal Worker Programme. Pacific Islanders travel to Australia to pursue horticultural labour because it holds the promise (if not always the reality) of superior wages to those which it is possible for people to earn in their home countries.
Dr Stead found while the SWP scheme has many positives, many workers conceded they would rather be working on their home islands.
…however in my research in Shepparton over the past four years many Pacific Islander workers have also explained that they would have preferred to stay in their home countries, with their families, if the same work opportunities were available to them there.
Ms Kidd outlined that Department of Education, Skills and Employment does seek feedback on the SWP from countries involved through the Pacific Labour Facility and mostly positive views from the workers themselves.
Some of it is through the workers, where we ask them about their experience here. I think 95 per cent are satisfied with their experience. Word of mouth is pretty critical in that sort of way. Also, we have formed a relationship with the heads of mission from the countries here in Australia, and we meet regularly with them…so that’s a very good feedback mechanism as well. They’ll let us know what they’re hearing through their channels, and it’s an opportunity for us to engage with them and resolve issues as required.
We don’t have any wholesale negative views. Definitely the program is perceived in a very positive light. It’s very popular. People are very keen to get on it, and individuals who return are held in high esteem: they’ve been on the program and they’ve sent remittances home. So there’s a lot of very good feeling about it. What we hear are individual issues, and they’ll be brought to our attention and, where possible, we’ll resolve them.
Many of the workers interviewed by Dr Stead articulated their keen awareness of the unequal socio-economic conditions between themselves and many Australians, and the inequalities in status that they see being replicated through the scheme.
Pacific Islander workers describe, for example, a feeling that they are being perceived as suitable only for kinds of work (like fruit picking) that Australians deem undesirable. There is a danger, inherent in the scheme, that Australia is representing and treating the Pacific as a particular kind of place (a source of cheap, compliant labour), and Pacific Islanders as particular kinds of people (good for low-skilled, otherwise undesirable work).
Dr Stead warned such characterisations would be ‘…reductive, dangerous, insulting, and harmful to [Australia’s] regional relationships’.
During a public hearing for the Sub-Committee, Ms Mellisa Silaga, Social Cohesion Officer/Pacific Islands Community Leader, Ethnic Council Shepparton and District, gave first-hand evidence as to the extent to which exploitation of SWP employees was prominent. Specifically referencing wages, Ms Silaga stated:
… there are parts of the schemes that are exploiting our people—and that’s due to how high the costs are to the farmers but also to our people, because it gets taken out of their income. So they are offered minimal wage and then it’s taken away from them. By the time they go home, they could walk out of Australia with AUD$11,000, which translates—and I will speak on behalf of the Samoan people—as maybe 20,000 to 25,000 tala. That is a lot more than they had when they came here; however, in research terms, the amount of money that they take away after being here for six months is kind of known as modern slavery, at best.
Furthermore, Ms Silaga highlighted the issue of Pacific workers enduring prolonged family separation, whilst employed via the SWP, as leading to local disengagement and mental health risks:
Nobody gets to bring their wife or their children over here—and that’s lonely; there’s no connection. They try to make connections in the community; however, they have to spend all day on the farm and then, by the time they get home, they are tired—so, again, isolation.
The ANU Development Policy Centre submitted a need for Australia recommend lifting enforced family separation, under the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS).
There are serious concerns about the potentially harmful social effects of family separation. For example, there is convincing evidence that, in the context of migration to New Zealand, Pacific household members left behind are often worse off in terms of poorer diets, higher rates of alcohol consumption, declining child weight, and lower asset holdings. Allowing accompanying family members would go a long way to improve optics, strengthen positive relationships, and alleviate some of the ethical concerns around our Pacific temporary migration programs.
If families were allowed to accompany Pacific workers, the ANU Development Policy Centre welcomed the possibility of school-age children building ‘…enduring relationships and obtaining improved education outcomes while accompanying their working parents’.
If Pacific workers want to take out the benefits of PLS participation via better education for their children, that choice should be respected. On the other hand, making the PLS Australia’s only temporary migration scheme that bars accompanying families is simply not viable in the longer run.
Furthering Ms Silaga’s perspective, Mr Mohammad Al-Khafaji, Chief Executive Officer of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, raised the existence of a power imbalance between employees and employers. As a consequence, employees were not empowered to openly discuss work exploitation for fears of losing their employment.
At the heart of this issue, Mr Al-Khafaji identified the need for improved procedures to deal with disputes and complaints made by employees against employers. In particular, Mr Al-Khafaji recognised that:
Any whistleblower system needs to ensure that the complainant remains anonymous. There needs to be a third party that is trusted, and people who potentially blow the whistle need to be reassured that they will not be in trouble, sent back home or whatever. So they need to be protected and have the assistance to be able to transition from, for example, one employer to another and not fear: if I make a complaint, then I’m going to lose my job and they’re going to send me back home.
Discussing the subsequent need for rebalancing SWP employment power balances and expectations, Mr Al-Khafaji stated:
I think the problem is that a lot of these people are powerless. I think there is a power imbalance between the employer and the employee. If we can remove or rebalance or have a third party that can administer and conduct audits, or act as a conduit and make sure that people are getting paid the right amount and the employees are meeting their requirements at no cost to either of the parties, I think that would work. Also, somebody mentioned if we impose too much burden on this particular program then farmers will go back to the backpacker program. I would say the programs should not be any different. If people are going back to the backpacker program because it’s easier to exploit people then there is another problem there that we need to look at. No-one should feel that this program is easier because I get more control over how I can pay people less. The same set of rules should apply across these programs and I think the power imbalance needs to be addressed here.
Research on the SWP by Dr Victoria Stead, from Deakin University, also found many SWP workers in Australia who believe they work under the threat of losing their job without redress.
Workers typically work for periods of up to 6 months, and the prospect of return in subsequent seasons (years) is held out by the industry and Australian government advocates of the scheme as a key benefit. However workers’ capacity to return is often dependent on the inclinations of the farmers they work for and/or the labour hire agents who mediate their employment. This greatly inhibits their willingness to complain or advocate for their rights and conditions.
Dr Stead documented a ‘tremendous turnover of [SWP] staff across three years’ in one fruit-packing shed in Shepparton.
Of an original group of ~20 workers in the first year, only three were included in the return group the second year (which also had ~20 workers), despite all of the original group wanting to return. The third year, only two returnees were included in the cohort. One worker, who had been vocal in organising the group, was not chosen to return, with the packing shed manager identifying ‘personality issues’ as a vague explanation for the decision. Under Australian workplace legislation, this would not be an acceptable justification for the cessation of a workers’ employment, but the conditions of the SWP make it possible for Pacific Islander workers to be treated in this way.
Therefore, whilst it has been identified that significant advantages are linked with labour mobility arrangements including the SWP, particularly for stimulating trade and investment ties, fundamental concerns persist.
This in turn warrants an examination of potential future avenues for SWP reform, particularly as a means of safeguarding worker rights and protections.
Opportunities for reform of labour mobility
Many submissions to the Sub-committee noted the potential for the SWP to be deepened and enhanced in the coming years. DFAT noted their commitment to enhancing labour mobility in the Pacific region, including through improving integration between Pacific Island economies with those of Australia and New Zealand.
As DFAT recognises, labour mobility remains one of the largest economic opportunities for Pacific economies. According to DFAT, the World Bank estimates that expanding labour mobility could generate additional net income of approximately USD$13 billion for over 200,000 people in the Pacific.
His Excellency Mr Samson Vilvil Fare believed the Pacific diplomatic corp would welcome much more information themselves on Australia’s labour mobility programs and even an induction on the SWP and PLS for new diplomats, if possible, from the two departments responsible.
Sometimes when we come here—and I speak from experience—we’re not too well versed with the labour mobility program in Australia. We would love to see, when we came as new high commissioners to Australia, that departments responsible for labour mobility should have at least an induction for us to brief us.
It is now becoming more obvious that the high commissioners and ambassadors here in Australia are engaging more actively on the labour mobility because of the issues that have been brought to us as consular matters to address to our respective high commissions, so it would be good for the responsible departments to organise an induction for all new high commissioners and ambassadors in Australia in terms of labour mobility, especially from sending countries.
That will be one of my recommendations so that we would not only understand clearly where our limitations as high commissioners are and understand our role better but also assist our citizens here, providing consular services to them when they’re in need.
Given the regulatory and administrative burdens noted previously, several submissions centred on reforms aimed at easing the flows of Pacific people into Australia.
The Whitlam Institute urged the Australian Government to offer increased access to short-term visas, student and professional exchange programs and minimise ‘onerous’ administrative and financial burdens to support individuals engaging in the SWP.
This perspective was further highlighted by the Griffith Asia Institute:
Australian policymakers should look to build on the successes of labour mobility by creating new pathways for temporary mobility, and permanent migration, for Pacific Island workers.
Drawing upon research conducted by the World Bank and the Development Policy Centre at the ANU, the Griffith Asia Institute suggested:
Australia [could] initiate a new ‘Pacific Integration Visa’ that would allow a quota of Pacific Islanders (initially set at 9,000 visas per annum) to enter Australia and to become permanent residents after a period of employment. As well as helping to meet labour shortages in Australia, such a scheme would have many of the same benefits (and fewer challenges) of longer-stay mobility schemes.
However, as noted by the Griffith Asia Institute, ‘…Australia’s temporary mobility schemes are not without their challenges’. Further:
[Policy makers] need to ensure that Pacific Island workers are not subjected to exploitation by unscrupulous employers abroad. Migrant workers in Australia and New Zealand need effective representation to protect their rights around pay, conditions, and health and safety in the workplace.
Noting the need for a cross-sector, collaborative approach to overcoming concerns pertaining to SWP work conditions, Griffith Asia Institute further highlights:
[An effective response] will continue to require tripartite dialogue between governments, trade unions, and private sector representatives. Schemes that allow for longer stays … present a particular challenge for Pacific Island families. Considerations should be given to allowing families to accompany workers to Australia…
Importantly, as noted by Ms Silaga at a public hearing, despite the existence of worker exploitation through the SWP, this initiative should not be taken away or cancelled entirely. Rather, Ms Silaga suggested:
…a third party able to be a part of … ensuring that these things are in place and are not going to put our people in positions where they feel like they’re not getting enough or they’re getting very little is a good recommendation to put forward. I would, however, add to that recommendation the idea that we ensure whatever third party we put in always includes our Pacific island people in the discussion and in these third-party organisations that are going to bring our people and those who are passionate—not just any Pacific islander, because you could get any in doing that job, but ensuring that they also are people connected to their community locally and have Australia’s and their people’s best interests at heart.
Highlighting concerns over the fair and ethical treatment of employees in Australia’s horticultural sector, Growcom concurs the possibility of bringing in a third-party body to provide oversight and audit employment practices.
Reflecting on Growcom’s own efforts to date in this area, the organisation identified that:
Growcom on behalf of the Australian industry has developed and is now delivering Fair Farms, the industry-led, independent, third party audited certification of fair employment practice. Fair Farms has witnessed a great rate of uptake by employers since being launched mid-2019 and now enjoys recognition from each of the major supermarkets as an option for their supplies to satisfy ethical sourcing requirements.
Subsequently, Growcom recommended the Australian Government consider incorporating Fair Farms as either a recommended or mandatory requirement for employer participation in the SWP. This in turn would work to safeguard worker rights and reduce risks of employee exploitation.
To minimise risks for seasonal workers, the Manager of Policy and Advocacy at Growcom Mr Richard Shannon hoped Fair Farms could be included to address the problems with exploitation.
It’s an independent third-party certification of fair employment practice. Government could give some consideration to making that certification recommended or a mandatory requirement of participating in the Seasonal Worker Program and the Pacific Labour Facility.
Complementing these suggestions, other submissions also highlighted the existence of high youth unemployment rates in Pacific nations as an avenue of future opportunity for the SWP.
This approach was elaborated on by the Institute for International Trade, who recognised that:
In most Pacific Island Countries, there is a rapidly expanding youth population where labour supply far outstrips demand. The Australian Government is to be commended for its expansion of the Pacific Labour Facility but we need to continue to expand to other sectors of skill shortage in Australia, such as the construction and trades sector. The maintenance and expansion of temporary labour mobility schemes is consistent with commitments made under PACER Plus that member countries will benefit from increased access to temporary labour market opportunities in Australia and New Zealand.
Importantly, via submission to the Sub-Committee, the Solomon Islands further reinforced the local value of engaging Pacific youth populations in labour opportunities. Specifically:
The youth population accounts for some 60 per cent of the Solomon Islands population. With high unemployment levels in the country, the opportunities availed through the SWP and the PLS, as well as the New Zealand Recognised Seasonal Employment (RSE) Schemes, offer a temporary reprieve while medium to long term efforts are made to address creation of sustainable employment opportunities in the Solomon Islands economy.
The ANU Development Policy Centre declared a need for Australia to move beyond a focus on temporary migration for Pacific islanders to build better pathways to permanency.
Recycling workers in and out of countries that lack the jobs to employ them is of less benefit than building up the Pacific diaspora in Australia. Pacific Islanders are very poorly represented in the Australian population, with some nationalities particularly marginalised. There are fewer Papua New Guineans in Australia than there are Samoans (Samoans enter Australia via New Zealand). We recommend a permanent lottery scheme, as per the New Zealand model. The PLS could also be reformed to include a permanent pathway.
Professor Stephen Howes from the ANU’s Development Policy Centre supported the New Zealand approach to providing seasonal workers with opportunities for permanent migration and a better education believing it would not lead to a brain drain.
[permanent migration] is good for the countries and gives a strong incentive for education—if we look at Samoa or Tonga they have much higher levels of education than in Melanesian countries—and the diaspora doesn’t lose touch with the home country. They are neighbours; they go back every Christmas; and there are lots of ongoing and very strong cultural connections. So I think it is a sort of false dichotomy to think that these permanent opportunities are going to lead to brain drain. If managed well they can actually lead to a brain gain.
Dr Tess Newton Cain from the Griffith Asia Institute called on Australia to improve the seasonal worker programs to become a pathway to further education and permanent migration.
There are plenty of opportunities to enhance both the Seasonal Worker Program and the Pacific Labour Scheme to make them true drivers of regional economic and social integration. Increased access to Australia for work, study, leisure and, in some cases, permanent relocation is something that Pacific people have told us that they seek as part of Australia’s vuvale or family.
According to New Zealand Immigration, New Zealand allows residents of Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tonga and Fiji aged between 18 and 45 to register for a ballot that if their name is successfully drawn from the other applicants then they are invited to apply for a Pacific Access Category Resident Visa. Once granted the visa, the ballot winner can work, live and study in New Zealand indefinitely. The New Zealand visa ballot will make these visas available to 75 Kiribati citizens, 75 Tuvaluan citizens, 250 Tongan citizens and 250 Fijian citizens.
Professor Stephen Howes described the New Zealand Pacific Access Category ballot as a lottery to gain permanent residency.
…it’s like the green card [lottery in the United States]. Again, the demand is about six times the amount of supply. So people put in their bid. The lucky ones are chosen and then they’ve got six months to get a job. I think a strong aspect of the scheme is that you can’t just rock up and get the unemployment benefits; you’ve got six months to get a job. So they use the diaspora, and the New Zealand government also has a small team that kind of helps you find a job…You don’t get that unless you have a job.
The ANU Development Policy Centre also recommended reversing recent policy changes to the Working Holiday Maker visa, specifically the provision of a third-year extension, because it impacts on the SWP.
The Working Holiday Maker visa extensions currently undermine the SWP by incentivising the Working Holiday Maker program and introducing an unregulated and poorly-targeted de facto agricultural visa. The strategic returns to Australia are dubious, and the consequences for worker exploitation dire.
The World Bank Group and International Finance Corporation declared that it has moved more recently to support labour mobility in its lending and operations with also a focus on assisting the more disadvantaged islanders.
The Skills and Employment for Tongans project supports recruitment efforts with a focus on disadvantaged households, while also funding skills development and training that is relevant (and importantly, recognized) for temporary migration opportunities overseas.
Bolstering female participation in worker programmes
The International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA) highlighted its concerns with current cornerstone for boosting employment links between Pacific nations and Australia is the Pacific Labour Scheme, launched in July 2018. The IWDA noted while remittances from family members working overseas are one of the fastest growing sources of finance for developing countries, less than 20 per cent of PLS workers were women.
However, the unequal participation of women in the scheme, as well as the likely social impacts of prolonged absence of working age population, pose concerns and require further steps to understand and mitigate potential negative effects of the scheme.
According to live data provided on the Pacific Labour Scheme homepage, as at 11 March , the gender split of workers currently in Australia was 80.4 per cent men, 19.6 per cent women.
The IWDA believed the expansion of eligible industries to include service, care and hospitality sectors has been ‘…billed as an effort shift this balance, but is yet to yield results’.
While this may lead to increased participation by women, it also problematically perpetuates existing gendered aspects of workforce participation. Exploration of potential incentives for male-dominated industries to employ more women should be undertaken, to avoid reinforcing existing gendered work roles and to support the transformation of wider gender norms.
To more fully understand the factors deterring or preventing women from participating, the IWDA called for Australia government investment in research, monitoring, evaluation and learning processes.
Reducing the isolation of workers through systematic connections to trade unions, overseas employee networks and other supports stands to diminish vulnerability concerns.
The IWDA was concerned by the prolonged absences as a result of the Pacific Labour Scheme having the ‘…potential to skew social dynamics in communities left behind’.
With prolonged family separation, women’s social role in undertaking unpaid care is likely to increase, while at the same time, the absence of working age people will further put pressure on those left at home to carry forward the requirements of the paid labour force. The significant extension of time spent in Australia by unaccompanied workers through the Labour Scheme (maximum three years) compared to the longer running Seasonal Worker Program (maximum nine months), is likely to have significant repercussions that must be addressed with urgency.
The IWDA pointed to the research by the NZIPR Labour Mobility for Sustainable Development Project which found the potential consequences of such absences included ‘…marital dissolution or family abandonment, domestic violence, poor nutrition of workers and/or those who remain at home, disciplinary problems with children, cultural transgressions, and extreme emotions felt by workers and those who remain at home’.
The IWDA wanted the Australian government to explore the possibility of whether ‘…expanding eligibility for family accompaniment could reduce the severity of such separation, and support increased participation by women with family and care responsibilities’.
Complementary initiatives that support the transformation of social norms around unpaid care will be vital to both mitigate the impacts of the scheme, and transform unequal gender norms.
The World Bank Group believed there is potential to extend its financial support with an extra focus on growing the numbers of women workers from rural and regional parts of the Pacific, by helping to finance some pre-departure costs.
More can be done to increase female participation in labour mobility schemes and to ensure that sending households receive appropriate support. Support for participation of those in remote and rural areas could further increase the poverty alleviation impact of temporary migration schemes, with development partners potentially assisting through financing of pre-departure costs using revolving funds or micro-finance programs. Nonetheless, 39 percent of PLS workers are female, a big improvement on the established and the larger Seasonal Worker Programme, where the ratio is 18 percent.
Solomon Islands High Commissioner Sisilo believed more can be done by governments to encourage more women and workers from remote regions to take on season work under SWP or PLS.
However, various barriers on both the supply side and the demand side hinder the participation of potential migrants, especially women and residents of more remote provinces of the Solomon Islands. This is an area that we will seriously look into.
Through these labour mobility schemes, in addition to improving domestic investment climate, the hope is that investment and trade opportunities will expand in the PICs.
Need for a Pacific labour bubble during the pandemic
Considering the opportunities apparent for further reform and progression of the SWP, Save the Children Australia suggest the establishment of a ‘Pacific Bubble’ to support Pacific labour mobility and remittance flows into Pacific during COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the challenges of COVID-19 and the impact of closing many state borders in 2020 on limiting the movement of the SWP workers to where they were needed in Australia, Ms Kidd from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment managed to avoid workers missing out employment and being paid.
There shouldn’t be, because our aim is to move them as quickly as possible. There might be gaps between, and in terms of our commitment to the workers, or the approved employer’s commitment, they should expect an average of a minimum of 30 hours work per week. That might mean some weeks dip down to 10, for example, as the season was dropping off, and ideally you’d relocate them before there was too big a gap. So there might be a bit of a variation in their income, but ideally not a gap.
Ms Kidd confirmed approved rest breaks or unpaid leave from work were also granted to some of the 6,300 Pacific workers who remained in Australia who felt they needed it after staying longer in Australia due to the COVID-19 travel bans.
…the workers that have been here for a while: we introduced approved rest breaks. The seasonal worker program participants are casual workers, and so they don’t have annual leave. They generally don’t need it because they’re here for a short period of time but, given the extension of their stay, we’ve built in approved rest breaks so, in effect, they can take some leave to refresh and have a break from work.
Professor Duncan of the ANU concurs the importance of maintaining remittance flows into the Pacific during the COVID-19 crisis. Professor Duncan recognises:
The COVID-19 pandemic has essentially stopped tourism. This is devastating for the six FICs very dependent on tourism: Cook Islands, Fiji, Palau, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu.
Given the dramatic halt to tourism regionally, particularly due to the suspension of airline traffic, many Pacific diplomats highlighted that many Pacific economies were struggling. Consequently, Professor Duncan notes Australia’s attempts to support Pacific economies via continuation of the SWP, allowing the recent temporary migration of 200 seasonal workers from Vanuatu to the Northern Territory to assist fruit picking.
Dr Wesley Morgan from the Griffith Asia Institute believed as part of the compromise with PICs that was worked out for PACER Plus, there’s now an annual Pacific labour mobility meeting to ‘…nut out practical policy for improving opportunities for labour mobility’. Dr Morgan hoped that meeting could be the forum to drive the urgent need for a labour bubble.
It’s been a kind of a ‘Learn as we go’. Over the last decade, labour mobility has been a huge success for both Australian farms and Pacific workers. Along the way there have been policy learnings, and these things get tweaked every year.
…using that annual labour mobility meeting to push for a labour bubble. Right now, when Pacific island workers aren’t going to other markets around the world, there’s a real opportunity to bed down what will be a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship in terms of people working in Australia and travelling to and from the Pacific in a COVID-safe way.
From a broad perspective, Professor Duncan’s standpoint highlights the potential for labour mobility initiatives, including the SWP, to be an important economic vehicle in the Pacific.
Consequently, noting the importance of progressing labour mobility initiatives in a COVID-19 environment, particularly when alternate revenue flows have been impacted, the Australian Government should seek to support programmes including the SWP for economic viability.
The caveat to this argument being that any such action taken by the Australian Government must be considerate of Pacific worker rights and the importance of providing safe, secure and respectful workplaces.
Vanuatu’s High Commissioner His Excellency Mr Samson Vilvil Fare urged both departments DFAT and DESE that manage the seasonal worker programs to engage with diplomatic missions more and consider hosting meetings every one or two months with the Pacific high commissioners. These meetings can discuss the latest issues with SWP and PLS to help the missions service their citizens while they are in Australia.
I know that I’ve been engaging a lot with DFAT and DESE on a number of issues that we face, that our workers face in Australia. This is also a platform. We could have a monthly meeting or a bimonthly meeting or something like that where they could engage more with us and tell us about the program itself and the new developments that are coming into the program as well.
The Sub-Committee recognises the value labour mobility programmes, such as the SWP, provide for Pacific and Australian communities. This became particularly apparent to the Sub-Committee in areas including remittance flows and skills development, amongst a range of benefits identified with the SWP.
However, the Sub-Committee also remains concerned about testimonies pertaining to poor working conditions and exploitative labour arrangements associated with initiatives including the SWP, despite existing requirements that employers utilising either programme comply with Australian employment legislation.
The Sub-Committee is concerned about not only the wellbeing of impacted workers in these circumstances, but also the risk of knock-on reputational damage to Australia’s labour mobility programmes in the Pacific. In turn, the Sub-Committee urges the Australian Government to review existing labour mobility arrangements, particularly the SWP, and consider opportunities to strengthen and improve these initiatives, including a more effective compliance regime utilising relevant agencies such as the Fair Work Ombudsman.
The Sub-Committee recognises the growing importance of labour mobility and remittances to many families and communities in Pacific island countries, and the devastating impact of the travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. This highlights the need following public health advice of medical authorities for developing a safe travel bubble between Australia and those Pacific islands countries willing to participate. This will not only support Australia’s trade and investment ties with the Pacific, but is critical to supporting Pacific employees and their communities abroad.