Slow start to Pacific Labour Scheme - ABC radio interview Pacific Beat

July 09, 2019





SUBJECTS: Pacific Labour Scheme poor start, Seasonal Worker Program, backpacker visas.

HOST, LIAM FOX: Participation in Australia’s Pacific Labour Scheme has been low, with only 200 taking part in the first year, about one-tenth of what had been expected. The Opposition estimates the shortfall means Pacific workers are missing out on work that would be worth around $8 million in wages. It’s raised broader questions in Australia about visas for temporary workers, with Australian farmers saying it is easier for them to use backpackers when they need extra labour. Here’s foreign affairs reporter Melissa Clarke.

REPORTER MELISSA CLARKE: It was meant to bring 2,000 people from the Pacific to Australia for jobs but only 200 workers have gotten visas in the first year of the Pacific Labour Scheme. Pat Conroy is the spokesman for international development and the Pacific for the Opposition Australian Labor Party.

PAT CONROY: Well, it’s been a very disappointing start and in fact it’s been a massive failure from the Government to ensure that the Pacific Labour Scheme works properly. The Government had projected that almost 2,000 visas would be granted last year and in fact only 203 were granted. So, one-tenth of the target was reached and that’s an indictment on this Government.

CLARKE: The Pacific Labour Scheme built on the older Seasonal Worker Program. It allows workers from all Pacific countries and East Timor to work, not just in agriculture, but other sectors, such as aged care and hospitality. Pat Conroy says the new scheme isn’t working as it should be.

CONROY: The impact of this Government failing to hit the 2,000 visa target is they’ve effectively robbed $8 million of wages that would have been repatriated back to Pacific nations in dire poverty.

CLARKE: At the same time the Australia Government was introducing the Pacific Labour Scheme, it changed the rules for temporary holiday-makers, allowing them to work in Australia for longer, with far less administration involved in their employment.

CONROY: It’s been undermined, to be frank, by the deregulation of the backpacker visa scheme. It’s much easier for employers, particularly agricultural employers, to get backpackers in. They don’t have to test the labour market to establish that Australians can’t do the jobs before they use backpackers, whereas for example under the Pacific Labour Scheme people have to test there isn’t local labour available. You have to provide all sorts of other commitments, which is very important. But that does mean that the Pacific Labour Scheme is being undermined by the Government’s policy decisions in other areas.

CLARKE: That’s backed up by Australian farmers. Ben Rogers, from the industry group the National Farmers Federation says the Pacific Labour Scheme and Seasonal Worker Program are too complicated for many employers in food production and agriculture.

BEN ROGERS, NATIONAL FARMERS FEDERATION: It will suit some of the farmers; it will probably suit the bigger growers, or the bigger producers, but not so great for the smaller producers who will struggle with the administrative hurdles and the upfront costs, which come with the program.

CLARKE: Visitors on working holiday visas or bridging visas are much easier to employ than Pacific workers with special visa requirements.

ROGERS: At the end of the day those administrative burdens, the difficulty of paying the upfront costs, the airfare, finding accommodation, taking care of the pastoral needs, and dealing with the bureaucratic requirements, it just seems to be too much for the smaller growers to manage.

CLARKE: The National Farmers Federation wants a complete overhaul of the visa system for temporary workers saying a new visa category, an agriculture visa, would be more flexible and easier for employers. Ben Rogers says a recent survey they conducted shows the current system needs improving.

ROGERS: 22 per cent said they had constant labour shortages, 43 per cent said they had shortages at peak seasons, and the losses are not insignificant. There are some who reported losses as high as $2 million. But then more generally, more than 20 per cent of our respondents said that they were experiences losses of up to $50,000 each. So, that is a significant loss.

CLARKE: The Australian Government has backed the idea of a new visa category, but there’s been no details released yet. It’s not clear whether it would lead to more or fewer workers from the Pacific on their way to Australia and whether that’s desirable. The Pacific Labour Scheme has raised concerns that skilled workers are leaving important jobs at home to earn more money in low skilled jobs in Australia. But the Australian Labor Party’s Pat Conroy says if it means more remittances flowing to Pacific countries it’s a good thing.

CONROY: I’m not convinced of the brain drain argument with the Pacific Labour Scheme. We’re talking, if this scheme had been fully subscribed in the first year, we’re talking 2,000 people out of the over 10 million people who live in the Pacific, so it’s not a significant number in terms of population, but it is a very significant number in terms of wages being sent back to those countries.

FOX: That’s Pat Conroy, the Australian Labor Party spokesman for international development and the Pacific and he was ending that report from Melissa Clarke.