Seasonal workers for Australia

20 Aug 2008

The announcement of an Australian seasonal worker program has been welcomed by employer groups and Pacific governments - but the devil’s in the detail.

THE announcement of a pilot study for a seasonal workers program in Australia - with 2500 workers coming to Australia over the next three years to work in horticulture and agriculture - follows years of lobbying by Pacific governments. Despite the claim by Shadow Foreign Minister Andrew Robb that the government has rushed into the scheme, the proposal has been on the table for some time. A 2006 Senate inquiry openly noted that “domestic political considerations” precluded a scheme being introduced in the lead up to the 2007 elections. Ironically, the sharpest criticism of the opposition’s last minute politicking has come from employer groups, with Denita Wawn of the National Farmer’s Federation stating: “We’re exceptionally disappointed with the Coalition. They are significantly out of touch with their position on the guest worker scheme.”

The government has announced that the pilot will be evaluated after 18 months to determine whether the scheme should be continued and expanded beyond the four countries chosen for the initial study: Vanuatu, Kiribati, Tonga and Papua New Guinea. The first three countries - one each from Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia - are already recruiting workers for New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme, while Papua New Guinea has historic links to Australia that are hard to ignore. Other countries are already seeking to be involved: Solomon Islands Prime Minister Derek Sikua has announced he will lobby Kevin Rudd in Niue to overturn the decision excluding his country, while former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks has been actively lobbying for Timorese workers to be included.

Seasonal worker schemes are attractive for horticulture farmers as they can guarantee a regular source of labour, in an industry reliant on backpackers, grey nomads and people working in breach of their tourist or student visas. Pacific workers are attracted by Australian wage rates and there is much demand for employment opportunities from villagers who are skilled at farming or fishing but lack the trade and professional qualifications needed for urban employment or the chance to migrate to Australia and New Zealand.

Pacific governments are eager to extend the Australian program to soak up unemployment and increase flows of remittances into rural communities, to be used for improved housing, payment of school fees or community programs. They also recognise that remittances are an increasing element of most Pacific economies - in a recent Pacific Economic Survey, the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) estimates that on current trends, remittances to the Pacific will overtake aid by 2009.

But there are significant social costs associated with temporary labour schemes, as detailed in our report, Workers for All Seasons?, published by the Institute for Social Research. Seasonal workers are separated from family for months at a time, which can affect children’s welfare and education and put an extra burden on elderly people left in the village. The experience of the New Zealand RSE scheme shows that a lack of engagement with unions, the community sector and Pacific diaspora communities has led to significant problems. The first year of RSE has highlighted the need for increased effort on labour rights, welfare services and “pastoral care” for seasonal workers, and also the shortage of secure and affordable housing in rural and regional areas (The NZ Department of Labour is currently investigating reports that a group of over 20 RSE workers from Kiribati were accommodated in one house.)

The protection of workers’ entitlements and health and safety is a major concern in precarious industries like horticulture, agriculture and construction, which often operate in areas with low union coverage, limited government regulation and a highly casualised, mobile workforce.

For a long time, employers groups like the National Farmers Federation (NFF) have argued for a self-regulation model, relying on industry pressure to ensure that overseas workers are not ripped off. With the announcement of the pilot, there are already farmers arguing that they should run the show. One NSW apple grower has called on the government to use Australian aid funds to help cover costs over and above the usual salaries, highlighting the attitude of some employers that they want to shift the costs of the scheme onto the must vulnerable communities in our region. Ian Hay, president of the Cherry Growers Association of Australia, said this week that he did not want unions to be overly involved in monitoring the scheme: “Farmers generally treat their workers well and shouldn’t be expected to give the Pacific Islanders any special treatment at the whim of the unions.”

But the experience of seasonal workers schemes in New Zealand and Canada shows there is a need for regulation and monitoring of all aspects of the program. Trade unions and government agencies must be engaged in supporting the labour rights of workers, who are operating in a totally alien legal and political framework. No member of the Pacific Islands Forum has signed or ratified key ILO conventions on the rights of migrant workers, and Pacific labour legislation is often outdated and inadequate to cope with an increasingly globalised work force (there are thousands of Fijians working in Iraq and Tuvaluan and i-Kiribati seafarers already staff the global shipping trade).

Under the Howard government, the ACTU and key unions opposed seasonal work schemes, fearful that the Work Choices regime would lead to a two-tier labour system - a fear amplified by the exploitation of overseas workers under s457 visas for temporary skilled labour. Some unions, including the CFMEU, continue to oppose the seasonal workers scheme, while the AWU under Paul Howes (which covers many rural workers) has given conditional support as long as it’s well regulated.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith has announced that the management of the pilot program will come under the portfolio of Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard as Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. Placing the scheme under DEWR rather than the Immigration Department is important in terms of regulating wages, conditions and occupational health and safety and there is a need for the department to appoint extra inspectors to monitor implementation of the program, as New Zealand’s Department of Labour has done for the RSE scheme. The results of Commissioner Barbara Deegan’s current inquiry into the s457 visa program will provide valuable information on the regulation of labour mobility from the Pacific.

The management of the pilot by a domestic ministry, however, raises questions about the role of the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), and the need to amplify the development outcomes of an increased remittance flow to the Pacific. There is great potential to link seasonal work programs to broader development assistance, to maximise the benefits of remittances into Pacific villages and rural communities. The pilot creates an opportunity for unions, NGOs and AusAID to integrate vocational training into the recruitment and after-care programs for seasonal workers, and to expand efforts to reduce the cost of transmitting remittances (which is higher in the Pacific than anywhere else in the world).

The early evidence from New Zealand also suggests potential for community links between horticulture regions and districts where workers are recruited. One significant outcome of the RSE program is that communities in Tonga and Vanuatu have coordinated to send a number of workers at a time, encouraging them to commit a portion of their wages to community projects like microcredit schemes for women.

Sunday’s initial announcement by Agriculture Minister Tony Burke has given little information about issues like recruitment and pre-departure briefing. Given evidence of alcohol abuse by Pacific workers in New Zealand, there is a need for greater pre-departure information on issues like substance abuse, HIV-AIDS and gambling, along with information on financial budgeting and the costs of transmitting remittances.

The debate about increased opportunities for temporary workers must be seen in a broader context of regional labour mobility, trade negotiations and economic integration.

In the 1880s, there was debate about whether New Zealand and New Guinea should be incorporated into the Australian Federation - a proposal scuttled by advocates of the White Australia Policy. Today, the announcement of the pilot seasonal worker program comes at a time when Australia and New Zealand are debating greater regional economic integration. In 1983, Australia and New Zealand joined together in Closer Economic Relations (CER), with two-way trade now worth $21.5 billion. Meeting Prime Minister Helen Clark in New Zealand this week en route to the Niue Forum, Kevin Rudd stated: “I want to see us working more closely together bilaterally, driving towards the single economic market.”

The two major Pacific powers are now debating how to extend CER to the wider Pacific region. The Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) signed by most Forum member countries in 2001, is now being extended into a regional free trade agreement, dubbed PACER-Plus. Australia and New Zealand have been pushing for a start to negotiations for the PACER-Plus agreement, in spite of resistance by Pacific governments and community groups, who are wary of social and economic impacts of full regional integration.

Pacific non-government organisations (NGOs) argue that the seasonal worker program in Australia should be developed as an element of migration and development assistance policy rather than being used as a trading chip in the proposed negotiations for a regional free trade agreement. A statement to Forum leaders this week by key regional NGOs working on trade justice - including the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC), the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Government Organisations (PIANGO) and the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG) - states that seasonal works schemes “should not be used as bargaining chips in negotiations to create pressure for trade liberalisation in Pacific Island countries. Labour mobility schemes, such as NZ’s pilot ‘Recognised Seasonal Employer’ (RSE) scheme (or any similar scheme in Australia), must be completely separated from PACER-Plus negotiations.” 

Nic Maclellan is author of Workers for All Seasons? and a researcher in the Pacific for the Institute of Social Research’s Pacific Labour and Australian Horticulture project.

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