Pacific workers may be worse off under Government’s plans to extend backpacker visa
Labour mobility experts say changes to Australia’s policy on backpacker visas could come at the expense of Pacific workers. (ABC News: Sue Lannin)
There are fears the Federal Government’s plan to increase the number of backpackers working on Australian farms will severely disadvantage workers from the Pacific.
On Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced an expansion of the working holiday visa (for backpackers) and the Seasonal Worker Programme (for Pacific workers) to help meet labour shortages on farms.
The move comes as New Zealand announced on Tuesday it would expand its seasonal workers scheme to 12,850 workers annually, compared to the nearly 8,500 that came to Australia last year.
Pacific countries — like Tonga, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands — rely on temporary labour schemes in Australia and New Zealand to provide much needed employment and wages for their people.
In the run-up to the next election, Mr Morrison has extended the time seasonal workers can stay in Australia by three months — bringing it up to nine months.
Backpackers will be able to work in Australia for three years if they do extra farming work.
The changes are seen as way of satisfying calls for a new agricultural visa and have been welcomed by the National Farmers Federation, which said farmers are facing a “chronic labour shortage”.
But Pacific Islands and labour mobility experts say the changes to the visa schemes could lower employer demand for Pacific workers.
The expanded visa program for backpackers is opposed by Professor Stephen Howes, the director of the Development Policy Centre at Australian National University.
“The biggest source of labour on Australian farms when it comes to picking fruit and vegetables is actually backpackers,” he said.
“Trying to get more backpackers onto farms would definitely hit Pacific Island countries.”
Competing with ‘rich’ backpackers
In the Solomon Islands, subsistence farming, forestry, fishing, mining, manufacturing and tourism are the major industries.
Freda Sikwae, 33, is from Kakabona village, just outside of Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands.
Last month she returned from her first season grading fruit at the Nutrano Produce Group’s citrus and blueberry farm in Gin Gin, Queensland.
Freda Sikwae, 33, could earn $700-$1,000 per week at Australian farms during busy periods. (ABC News: Sue Lannin)
The mother of four said she could earn anywhere from $700 to $1,000 a week at the farm in busy periods, much more than the pittance she could earn at home.
“In order for me to help my kids I have to go and work so I have a better living than in the Solomons,” she said.
“Build a good house, start a small business like I did now. I start a small canteen and a bottle shop.”
The Government has also introduced a new scheme for semi and low-skilled workers, the Pacific Labour Scheme.
It will allow people to be employed in industries including tourism, aged care, farming, and hospitality in rural and regional areas.
But Professor Howes said “rich” backpackers are essentially competing with people from the Pacific for farm work.
He said for every 250 seasonal workers on Australian farms, there are 1,000 backpackers.
Compare that to New Zealand, which takes in more Pacific workers, with around 3,000 seasonal workers for every 1,000 backpackers.
The Government could still introduce a farming visa in the future.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Rick Hou says his country is facing high youth unemployment. (ABC News: Sue Lannin)
“The NFF is pleased to have the Prime Minister’s support for a dedicated Agricultural Visa and we will continue to work with the Parliament to see the initiative become a reality,” NFF president Fiona Simson said.
Dr Alisi Holani, the deputy chief executive of Tonga’s Ministry of Commerce, told the ABC she wants to see Australia and New Zealand protect jobs for Pacific workers as a matter of policy.
“Because of the still very high demand for labour mobility from the Pacific, any new visa programs that are introduced could actually threaten that need from the Pacific for an increased number of workers.
“It would actually be detrimental for the Pacific.
“So there is a need for Australia and New Zealand to take into account their role in safeguarding the development impact.”
Delegates at last month’s Pacific Labour Mobility Annual Meeting in Honiara also raised their concerns about the farm visa plan and extended visas for backpackers.
A draft outcomes document expressed concern about the agricultural visa proposal, but the sentence was dropped after opposition from Australia.
In the end, Pacific nations called on Australia and New Zealand “to continue to give preference to workers from the Pacific”.
High youth unemployment
While brushing off questions from the ABC about a possible farm visa, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Rick Hou is hoping Pacific Islands can double or triple the number of seasonal workers they send to both countries.
“The National Party is pushing the (Australian) Government to do something and I know the National Party is farmers,” he said.
“Farmers cry for more and more workers.”
Godfrey Teamana, a recruiter in the Solomon Islands, says Australia’s seasonal workers scheme is “life changing” for the villagers. (Ivan Utahenua)
He said 70 per cent of the country’s population are younger than 34 but there are not enough jobs for young people.
“The current issue we have in Solomon Islands is there is very high unemployment among our youths,” Mr Hou said.
“Now in order to address youth unemployment, this is how important labour mobility is to me.”
Back on the ground in Kakabona, recruiter Godfrey Teamana said Australia’s seasonal workers scheme has been “life changing” for the villagers.
He recruits and trains workers in the Solomon Islands for the Nutrano Produce Group.
“It’s really a big impact on the village level,” he said.
“It’s really changed their lives of the workers from nothing to somebody today.”
Delegates at the Pacific Labour Mobility Annual Meeting raised concerns about the farm visa plan and extended visas for backpackers. (Pacific Labour Mobility Annual Meeting (PLMAM))