Commentary | 30 May 2018

Australia's Seasonal Workers Program a win for Pacific Islanders, too

Originally published on ABC News.

Originally published on ABC News.

In the past week, reports emerged about abuse of migrant workers in Australia's government-led Seasonal Workers Program.

The scheme brings thousands of Pacific workers to fill labour shortages in rural Australia.

The reports are deeply disappointing and reflect a larger culture of exploitation in Australia's horticultural sector. While working to address this, we must not lose sight of the profound benefit that most Pacific workers are seeing from the scheme.

Why the scheme makes sense

There is a boundless supply of low-skill workers in the Pacific region that lack formal employment opportunities at home.

Traditionally, the horticulture industry has relied on backpackers to fill the labour gap, yet these travellers are only doing the work to extend their visas.

Pacific Islanders stay up to six times longer at a farm than backpackers and are on average 20 per cent more productive.

t's working

After decades of lobbying, close to ten years of using backpackers as a stopgap, and a small pilot program, the Coalition government decided to give it a shot. Looking at just released research on the scheme from the World Bank, the numbers speak for themselves.

Since 2012, the SWP has employed 17,320 Pacific Islanders. Those numbers are continuing to grow, with 6,166 people participating in 2016-17 alone, a 37 per cent increase from the previous year.

Pacific workers positive

The scheme has been well scrutinised by academics, but recently released research from the World Bank clearly shows the dramatic positive impacts the scheme has had in the lives of the Pacific Islanders involved. Surveying close to 400 participants, the study shows that the average participant is taking home close to $9,000 over a six-month period (that's after paying Australian living costs). For the average Pacific Islander, this represents a more than fourfold increase in what they would otherwise have earnt in a year.

Overall since 2012, the scheme has injected approximately $144 million in net income gains to the region, directly into the pockets of people in the Pacific.

Pacific participants are overwhelmingly positive about the scheme. When asked how satisfied they were with the scheme on a scale of 1 to 10, the average was 8.6 across all participating countries. 98 per cent would recommend the program to others, and 95 per cent want to come back again the following year.

Diplomacy gains

As well as being a boon to Australian farmers, the scheme benefits Australia's strategic interests in our immediate region. It is an important complement to the more than $1 billion we give in aid to the Pacific each year.

It is a starting point to address Pacific Islanders' concerns that it is too hard for them to access Australian labour markets (the potential benefits of which I have illustrated in the past). It also serves to enhance the people-to-people links that the recent Foreign Policy White Paper puts so much stock in. To illustrate this point, read this fantastic story about an Australian farmer's profound new connection to a village in the Solomon Islands through her SWP employees.

All of this comes at a marginal cost to the Australian taxpayer.

Problems must be fixed

Now of course, no scheme is perfect and there are still important issues that need to be addressed. The horticulture industry is the wild west when it comes to exploitation and, even though Seasonal Workers appear to be exploited less than backpackers, it clearly does happen.

Workers have died while on the scheme, from car crashes or pre-existing health conditions. Lessons must be learnt from these tragedies, so the risk can be marginalised in the future.

The scheme is still hard for employers to get into: it comes with significant up-front costs and a lot of red-tape. The composition of the scheme also needs to be made fairer — Tongans and ni-Vanuatu made up almost 80 per cent of the 2016-17 intake.

More needs to be done to bring in other Pacific Island countries, especially the big untapped labour pools — Solomon Islands and PNG. More women need to be included in the scheme.

There are also concerns about the negative impact the scheme has on family dynamics and consumption patterns back in the Pacific.

These are all legitimate issues, but they are manageable ones. They should not take away from the fact that this is the most positive Pacific-related policy that we have seen from this Coalition government. We should be advocating for its continuing growth.

After all, it's in all our interests.