ANU researchers warn labour hire companies will use the expanded backpacker visa to bring in farm labour, instead of the more ‘bureaucratic’ Pacific scheme
Researchers from the Australian National University are warning the Morrison government’s visa changes that will allow backpackers to work on farms for up to three years will stunt the growth of a separate scheme to bring in Pacific island workers.
The Pacific program is designed to offer employment opportunities to workers from Timor Leste, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
While it has grown fast, it remains relatively small, with only 8,500 workers coming to Australia in the past financial year. The government insists its growth will continue and expects 14,000 workers to come in 2018-19.
But researchers at the ANU’s Development Policy Centre said the expansion of the working backpacker visa, announced by the government earlier this week, will see more growers and labour hire companies choose backpackers over Pacific workers.
“The supply of workers under the two schemes is closely related,” Matthew Dornan, the centre’s deputy director, told SBS News.
The changes will lift the number of backpackers allowed in from 23 largely developing nations and allow them to stay for up to three years, provided they work on farms and only for one year with each employer.
“That's going to lead to a big increase in the number of backpackers on farms and they're going to act as substitutes for Pacific islanders under the seasonal worker program,” he said.
“I think on balance, we're probably going to see – if not a decline – at the very least much slower growth in the seasonal worker program than we would have seen in the absence of these changes to the backpacker visa.”
The Pacific scheme was “bureaucratic” and involved a lot of “red tape” to prevent exploitation, Mr Dornan said. Nonetheless, SBS News has exposed more than a dozen deaths on Australian farms under the scheme.
In contrast, employers face less upfront costs when they bring in backpackers and have no obligation to provide accommodation or pastoral care, he said.
None of the Pacific nations are eligible for the expanded subclass 462 backpacker visa. Mr Dornan said the changes would have a negative impact on Australia - Pacific relations if the growth of the fledgling program was stunted as he predicted.
Mr Dornan said labour hire companies, which form the backbone of the Pacific scheme, could “turn their attention to countries like Indonesia and seek to recruit ‘backpackers’ who were “essentially farmers”.
“So really, that's an agricultural visa in disguise,” he said.
The government also made changes to the Pacific scheme, in a two-pronged approach to meet demands from the Farmer’s Federation and other groups, who had been demanding an entirely new agricultural visa to meet labour demands this harvest season.
Workers can now stay for nine months instead of six, and employers will only have to contribute $300 to their airfares instead of $500.
One asparagus farm outside Melbourne, which brings in a 120-strong workforce from Vanuatu for its harvest season, told SBS News it would not be switching to backpackers.
He said working backpackers never wanted to stay for long, and were less reliable.
Previous ANU research has found two-thirds of employers consider Pacific workers “above average or excellent” and most found them more reliable than backpackers.
“With the seasonsal workers, we just know they're here for the long haul,” Frank Bombaci, the asparagus grower, told SBS News.
Many of their workers returned for harvest after harvest, he said.
Assistant Minister for the Pacific Anne Ruston said the number of Pacific workers was “surging” and would continue to grow.
She told New Zealand radio the government considered the growth of the program a “very high priority”.
“We’ve seen a 40 percent increase year on year. Last year, we saw 8,500 come in under the [Pacific] seasonal workers program. We’re expecting that to increase to probably around 14,000 this year,” she said.
The ANU researchers have published a paper comparing Australia’s program to New Zealand’s. It found that for every 1,000 backpackers picking fruit and vegetables in New Zealand, there were 3,000 seasonal workers from the Pacific. In Australia, for every 1,000 backpackers, there were only 250 Pacific workers.
New Zealand this week announced plans to increase its cap on Pacific workers, with plans to take in nearly 13,000 this year.