Rita Chowdhury, Principal of boutique immigration law firm Integrate Legal, discusses the Seasonal Worker Programme, including which employers might benefit from it.
a. Background to the program
The Australian Government has expressed its commitment to developing a strong northern Australian economy, as an area with access to rich resources and international markets.[i] To achieve this goal, the government is focused on attracting Australian businesses and workers to come and work in northern Australia.
The White Paper on Developing Northern Australia: Our North, Our Future, prepared by the Australian Government in 2015, highlights challenges for employers in northern Australia in attracting workers:
- Industries in northern Australia requiring flexible and mobile labour;
- Personal and financial barriers preventing workers from moving to northern Australia;
- Different economic and labour market conditions in northern Australia.[ii]
In response to these challenges, Australia has established a number of labour schemes in agreements with the Pacific Islands, one of which is the Seasonal Worker Program (SWP).
b. Overview of the program
SWP began in July 2012 following a successful four-year pilot scheme, with the stated objectives to ‘fill seasonal labour shortages in the Australian agricultural sector, accommodation sector and the tourism sector’, and ‘contribute to the economic development of the Pacific Islands and Timor Leste’.[iii]
Since its introduction, the program has quickly expanded to meet high demand, including by expanding the types of sectors eligible to recruit workers, and by removing a cap on the number of workers eligible for the program.[iv]
c. How does it work
Through the SWP, employers who have been approved by the Australian government can recruit low skilled and unskilled seasonal workers from Pacific island countries and Timor-Leste.
Workers can apply for a Temporary Work (International Relations visa (subclass 403) in the Seasonal Worker Program stream.[v] Their visas are valid for the period of the employment contract, which can be granted for up to 3 years. However, a condition on the visa means workers can only stay in Australia for 7 months in a year, or 10 months if they are from Kiribati, Nauru or Tuvalu.[vi]
d. Who has already signed up
Over 25,000 workers from the Pacific and Timor Leste have worked in Australia through the program since 2012,[vii] with over 6,166 workers arriving in 2017.[viii]
Andrew Coldbeck, managing director of an employment agency The Job Shop, explained to the ABC that there has been a big shift in interest towards the Seasonal Worker Program, as employers seek a more stable workforce, and workers they can rely on to return year-in-year-out.[ix]
e. Who might benefit from it
The program provides clear benefit to Australian businesses who cannot find Australian labour to meet their seasonal needs. Businesses have developed strong relationships with the workers, who they train and can rely on to return next season. They also report increased efficiencies with access to a productive seasonal workforce with reduced absenteeism and staff turnover.[x]
Media controversy has emerged this year in relation to the SWP as 14 Pacific Island workers have died working on the SWP in Australia.[xi] These incidents highlight broader issues of exploitation of workers in the horticultural industry in Australia, and provide a crucial reminder to employers that foreign workers like Australian workers must be subject to fair working conditions.
However, despite these concerns the SWP has clearly held a positive impact for many workers. According to the World Bank’s 2017 report, workers bring home on average a fourfold increase in income to their families and communities, and overall report high satisfaction with the program.[xii]
Rita Chowdhury is the Principal of boutique immigration law firm Integrate Legal. Rita has more than 18 years’ experience in immigration law and was the inaugural Lawyers Weekly Partner of the Year (Migration) in 2016. Before establishing her own law firm, Rita developed and led immigration law practices at large international law firms and at one of the big four accounting firms. Rita has taught subjects in the Australian National University’s Graduate Diploma of Migration Law. She was an active member of the Migration Institute of Australia’s professional development program and remains an accredited educator at the MIA. A sought-after conference speaker, Rita was one of the few Australian immigration lawyers asked to present at the International Bar Association’s 2017 Annual Conference in Sydney. Her work has been published by leading legal publishing houses, including Lexis Nexus, CCH and Thompson Reuters.
[i] Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, https://www.industry.gov.au/strategies-for-the-future/northern-australia-agenda
[ii] Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Design Summary: Pastoral Care Support Services Program: Northern Australia Worker Pilot Program, https://dfat.gov.au/about-us/publications/Documents/pacific-microstates-pastoral-care-support-services-program-design-summary.pdf
[iii] Department of Jobs and Small Business, https://www.jobs.gov.au/seasonal-worker-programme; Government Response to the Joint Standing Committee on Migration report, Inquiry into the Seasonal Worker Programme, https://docs.jobs.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/government_response_to_seasonal_change_report_0.pdf
[vii] DFAT, Pacific Labour Mobility, https://dfat.gov.au/geo/pacific/engagement/pacific-labour-mobility/Pages/default.aspx
[viii] World Bank report, http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/572391522153097172/pdf/122270-repl-PUBLIC.pdf, x.
[ix] ABC news article, ‘Seasonal Workers Program a growing trend for Top End farms, http://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2017-05-15/seasonal-worker-program-a-growing-trend-for-northern-farms/8511226
[x] ABC, ‘Seasonal Worker Program in Australia gets backing from farmers but with concerns about rogue operators’, http://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2017-12-21/seasonal-worker-program-supported-by-farmers/9276672
[xi] SBS News, ‘Who are Australia’s seasonal workers’ https://www.sbs.com.au/news/who-are-australia-s-seasonal-workers
[xii] ABC, Australia’s Seasonal Workers Program a win for Pacific Islanders, too’ http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-05-30/pacific-islands-australian-seasonal-workers-program-fruitpicking/9807894; World Bank report, http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/572391522153097172/pdf/122270-repl-PUBLIC.pdf.