Australia’s seasonal worker program: demand-side constraints and suggested reforms

18 Feb 2015

Australia’s Seasonal Worker Program (SWP) permits workers from eight Pacific Island countries and Timor-Leste to work in Australia for a period of fourteen weeks to six months. The program centers on the horticulture sector, but is currently being trialed in four other sectors that were also perceived as suffering from labor shortages: accommodation, aquaculture, cotton and sugar cane.

The number of Pacific seasonal workers in Australia has progressively increased since 2008, but remains small in comparison both to the overall number of foreign workers operating in these sectors, mainly backpackers, and to New Zealand’s equivalent Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) Scheme.

In 2011, Stephen Howes and Danielle Hay carried out a survey examining employers’ views of the Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme (PSWPS), which preceded the SWP. Since this survey, there has been no further examination of why take-up remains low. This paper reports on the results of a comprehensive survey of employers and industry bodies across the horticulture sector. The findings confirm that the lack of an aggregate labor shortage due to the prevalence of illegal workers and backpackers in the horticulture industry remains the key constraint on employer demand for the SWP. In addition, there is still a lack of awareness of the scheme. This is particularly acute in states and territories with few Pacific seasonal workers. Growers who are aware of the scheme feel that its costs and risks need to be reduced. The reputation of the SWP is still poor amongst non-participating growers, but moderately positive amongst Approved Employers and participating growers, though these latter groups find the scheme’s administrative requirements burdensome. Encouragingly, one in four non-participating growers express an openness to taking on seasonal workers.

Based on these findings, the report recommends a series of reforms to lift employer demand. Key recommendations include: increasing funding for compliance activities to reduce the number of illegal workers in horticulture; either removing or reducing the second-year visa extension for backpackers working in horticulture, or generalizing it to all sectors; removing the upfront costs for returning workers and covering those for new workers through a revolving fund; reducing the minimum fourteen week work requirement; giving employers a greater role in worker selection; advertising the SWP through a targeted group of horticultural industry bodies; streamlining reporting requirements to government; and easing labor market testing requirements for participating growers.

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