Seasonal Worker Programme expanded to take more Pacific Islander and East Timorese workers for livestock and grain farms.
Despite issues with exploitation and suspect labour hire practices for foreign workers, the Federal Government is expanding its Seasonal Worker Programme to help deal with farm labour shortages.
Previously restricted to horticulture, aquaculture and cane farms, guest workers will now be allowed to work on cattle, sheep, grain and mixed farming enterprises.
Pacific Island and East Timorese workers can apply to work for either six or nine months, pay a flat 15 per cent tax rate and can return each year for the seasonal work.
Workers from Tuvalu, Kiribati and Nauru will be able to work for nine months, because of the high cost of transport home, while workers from Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu and those from East Timor can work for six months.
“What we encourage with this program is that you do return to Australia, so you get that relationship with your approved employer, you understand the work, and then it contributes to the aid focus of the program to build your own community and support your own family,” Minister for Employment Senator Michaelia Cash said.
The change in the programme comes after a survey by the World Bank last year found cheap and irregular backpacker labourers were taking jobs away from Pacific Islanders. The report recommended the Australian Government consider tightening visa rules for backpackers, which it has done. The Government is also set to increase the tax rate for backpackers to 32.5 per cent for every cent they earn from July 2016. That has caused serious consternation for the horticulture sector which is claiming a backpacker shortage is leaving fruit unpicked.
But Senator Cash said backpacker workers needed to pay more tax. “The Working Holiday Maker Programme has very different purpose than Seasonal Worker Programme, it’s a cultural exchange program, the backpackers don’t necessarily just come here to work. That’s about earning money for their holiday, going off and spending in the Australian economy,” Senator Cash said.
She would not be drawn on a National Farmers Federation campaign to limit the tax increase for backpacker workers to 19 per cent. Senator Cash said the expansion of the Seasonal Worker Programme for Pacific Islanders came from a push from livestock and grain farmers. “We want to help farmers substantially lift output during what we know are critical times of the year.”
Government crackdown on Seasonal Worker exploitation
Senator Cash said the Government would continue to crackdown on cases of worker exploitation.
The Fair Work Ombudsman is taking a Sunshine Coast labour hire company to court accusing it of underpaying 22 fruit pickers from Vanuatu.
The matter is set down for a directions hearing in a Brisbane court on March 1, 2016.
“This Government does not tolerate exploitation with Seasonal worker, 457 visas or domestically,” Senator Cash said.
“We ensure that only approved employers enter into legally enforceable agreements with the Commonwealth Government, represented by the Department of Employment.
“This is important. All workers employed under the Seasonal Worker program are protected by Australian workplace laws in the same manner as an Australian worker.
“We have the power to terminate agreements with employers if they don’t meet their obligations.
“That means you will no longer be able to recruit seasonal workers, you don’t get access to this labour and we know the labour is critical.”
Since July 2012, 8600 visas have been issued to seasonal workers under the program, with 70 approved employers.
An employer is required to test the local labour market first, and if they cannot find workers they can then apply to the Federal Department of Employment to prove they can take on the seasonal workers.
They then enter into a contract with the Department of Employment, via the department’s website.
By Sarina Locke