Australian worker programme failing to attract Pacific workers
An evaluation of Australia's Pacific Seasonal Worker Scheme shows it has been far less succesful than New Zealand's version of it.
An evaluation of Australia's pilot Pacific Seasonal Worker Scheme shows it has been far less successful than a similar programme in New Zealand.
The report, by the Australian National University's Development Policy Centre, shows only about 1,000 workers a year have got work in Australia, compared with about 8,000 in New Zealand.
But the Australian government says the scheme hasn't failed and the number of workers is increasing.
Jamie Tahana reports.
The director of the ANU's Development Policy Centre, Stephen Howes, says Pacific workers did very well during the pilot. But he says the pilot was a missed opportunity and only attracted around 1,000 workers annually.
STEPHEN HOWES: There's a sharp contrast with the very similar RSE scheme in New Zealand. And New Zealand gets some 7,000 to 8,000 workers a year under that scheme, whereas, despite the fact that Australia has got a larger horticultural sector, we only get about 1,000.
Mr Howes says the scheme was held back by red tape, high agents fees and a lack of government commitment. The National Farmers' Federation has campaigned for such a scheme for close to a decade. But its president, Duncan Fraser, says the scheme was tied up in bureaucracy and government concerns about overstayers, which didn't give it the best start. However, he says there has been a steady improvement in the number of workers in recent times.
DUNCAN FRASER: I know the government and the departments are genuinely working toward getting an increased uptake in the programme. But there'll always be improvements that can be made. I don't think we'll ever get to the stage you've got in New Zealand where tens of thousands of visas are taken up over the life of the programme.
The Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Matt Thistlethwaite, doesn't think the scheme has been a missed opportunity at all. He admits the scheme had a slow uptake, but the Gillard government has made it permanent and worked to improve it.
MATT THISTLETHWAITE: The government has listened to those concerns and we've now increased the minimum stay to ensure that people can be involved in working on more than one crop. We've reduced some of the red-tape arrangements and what we're finding is that there's been a greater uptake in the programme. And I'm confident that we're going to see more and more people come into this programme over coming weeks.
But Stephen Howes says the biggest challenge is a long-running programme that allows backpackers to work on plantations.
STEPHEN HOWES: Normally, you come under a backpacker visa for a year. But the government said that if you come for a year and you work for three months on a farm you can stay for a second year. And I think by the time that seasonal worker programme got off the ground it had been undermined by this reform.
Matt Thistlethwaite disagrees.
MATT THISTLETHWAITE: It's a completely different category. The two schemes in many respects complement each other and the Pacific workers scheme was really aimed at providing development opportunities for workers from the Pacific - allowing them to come to Australia, to work under Australian conditions, receive Australian wages, to learn some new skills.
One thing they all agree on, though, is that Australia has been too passive in its support of the scheme and it needs to be promoted more vigorously by both the government and industry. However, Duncan Fraser says an election campaign this year that has immigration as a key issue means the future of the scheme as a whole is uncertain. He says when the Liberal Party was in power they didn't support the National Farmers Federation's campaign for the scheme, and they haven't made any mention of it while in opposition.
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