An update on the Australian Seasonal Worker Program: Good, bad, ugly

New data for the Seasonal Worker Program is available. Unfortunately this stuff seems to be a little bit difficult to access. There is no stats page (which I can see) on the program website. The figures below come from a powerpoint presentation given by a Department of Employment executive at a recent conference.

To recap: the Seasonal Worker Program encourages labour mobility from Pacific countries allowing Pacific citizens to work in Australia. Income from this feeds back into their home communities, with demonstrated benefits for local economic development.

Table 1: Visas granted (program utilisation in brackets)

2012-13 2013-14
Program 1454 (91%) 1979 (99%)
Trial 19 (5%) 35 (7%)

Overall use in the program is growing. The program cap for 2012-13 and 2013-14 was 1600 and 2000 respectively. The growth means program utilisation went from about 91 per cent to 99 per cent. This is very good. We should not undersell this growth. This is a positive sign moving forward for the program and for Pacific island countries who are extremely interest in labour mobility. I’m aware of projects in Timor-Leste and Tuvalu examining how to better foster this mobility from sending countries, two countries where traditionally emigration hasn’t been on the policy agenda.

Less beneficial is the presence of a program cap. If growth continues and visas for 2014-15 look like exceeding the cap, this should be allowed to occur, sustaining good progress on a program which has been troubled in the past. For context, the New Zealand equivalent program has filled 8000 places for the past couple of years for a small labour market. However this appears unlikely given the following note included in the powerpoint:

I might add that to date, the Department of Employment has not had to take steps to control demand, which it may have to consider if demand for seasonal workers was expected to exceed the caps. These steps may include closing the application process to become an approved employer for a period of time. (Powerpoint file supplied by Department of Education, titled “Mark Roddam”)

Closing off the program to potential new employers would be one of the worst policy decisions to impact the program. This would choke off growth and stifle program outcomes regarding economic development. The irony of watching the Department of Employment make a decision to actively prevent employment…

The poorest outcome from the data is the rate of program utilisation for non-horticultural industries. These results are abysmal. This is the second year of a three year trial period and at this point, any learning from these pilots is going to be limited. If non-horticultural industries are excluded from the Seasonal Worker Program proper after the conclusion of the three year trial based on these results, policy-makers will be making a decision based on flawed evidence.

The inability of program managers to successfully integrate industries such as accommodation, cotton, aquaculture and cane into the Seasonal Worker Program is a policy failure. Blaming employers for such a low take up rate is incorrect given nearly every single employer in these sectors appears to have chosen not to take part. This signals the blame lies elsewhere.

Table 2: Visa grants by country of origin (proportion of total in brackets)

Country 2012-13 2013-14
Tonga 1199 (82%) 1497 (76%)
Samoa 22 (1%) 162 (8%)
Kiribati 34 (2%) 14 (1%)
Papua New Guinea 26 (2%) 26 (1%)
Solomon Island 42 (3%) 9 (<1%)
Timor Leste 21 (1%) 74 (4%)
Vanuatu 119 (8%) 212 (11%)
Nauru 10 (1%) 0 (0%)

Country of emigration shows a marginally improving situation. Most countries have only a handful of migrants making the trip to Australia. Tonga continues to provide a large majority of all seasonal workers. However there was a slight decrease in terms of proportion in 2013-14.

Samoa, Vanuatu and Timor-Leste all recorded improvements. Hopefully there are lessons being learnt here, allowing better policy implementation in both these countries of origin and in Australia.

Unfortunately, the Solomon’s and Nauru stand out as countries unable to access to program. This is likely for a variety of reasons, including a lack of capacity within those countries to meet the standards required by Australian policy-makers. PNG also went backwards in terms of proportionality despite the same (low) number of migrants making the trip. Given the population of PNG is well above all the other countries combined, this appears to be a long-term issue. Building capacity within PNG should be amongst the highest priorities. This is particularly true when we consider other immigration policy decisions occurring in PNG.

Overall, I think this data for 2013-14 should be viewed as cautiously optimistic with the major caveat being the lack of progress in the trials.

The rise in total visa grants mean the program is heading in the right direction. While there is the potential this could be stymied in coming years, there remains time to address this particular issue. The increase in migrants from Samoa and Timor in particular is positive. Embedding processes enabling the use of the Seasonal Worker Program in Pacific countries is the most important piece of the puzzle for long-term success. The more countries heading in the right direction will build future capacity, instead of relying solely on migrants from one or two countries.

This does not mean there aren’t improvements to be made. More visas will be granted if the burden on employers to use the program is reduced and by the adjustment of other visa regulations, such as those governing the working holiday maker program. New industries have to be incorporated into the program for serious long-term success to be realised. 2014-15 will be make or break in this regard.

(Note: You can email seasonalworker@employment.gov.au and ask for the 2014 SWP conference presentation files to access this data and other presentations)

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