PRESENTER: Australia's Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Richard Marles has told an international conference that the Pacific Seasonal Worker Program has a bright future.
Since the Australian Government first set up its pilot seasonal work program in 2009, 1500 workers from come from Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Kiribati to work in the horticulture industry.
In Sydney this week 150 delegates including 40 from Pacific island countries are meeting to hear how the program will develop.
Richard Marles says the Seasonal Worker Program is now open to eight Pacific countries as well as East Timor and is undergoing a big expansion. He spoke to Jemima Garrett.
RICHARD MARLES: The basis remains horticulture and that's where we expect to see the biggest numbers come through. We're providing 12,000 visas across the program over a four year period. But we're also looking at pilot programs in cotton, in the cane industry, in aquaculture, and in accommodation in certain parts of Australia and we have extended it to the East Timorese who are working in the tourism sector, particularly in Broome.
So, we're taking the next steps down the path. This is being welcomed by the region which sees this as really the single most important step forward in regional economic integration.
JEMIMA GARRETT: You've in Guyra in New South Wales this week talking to Tongans working on tomato farms. What did you find there?
RICHARD MARLES: Well, the first thing we found is that Guyra is very cold. You know, the sky was clear, the sun was shining but it was still only just above zero, so we concluded that the sun is obviously broken in Guyra.
But we found a remarkable story. I mean, firstly, the tomato glasshouse, which is being run by the Costa Group is a 20 hectare facility absolutely state-of-the-art. We saw Tongan workers making an enormous contribution to that business.
What this business says, and I think this is a really important thing to understand about this project, is that the productivity of the Pacific workers is particularly high because you're seeing people come back year-after-year, or season-after-season. Every time one of those workers comes back without the need for retraining it saves about $10,000 for that company. So that's a huge benefit for them.
For the Tongan workers themselves, they're earning Australian wages, they're able to remit a fair proportion of that back to their country. In doing that, they're buying or building new houses at home, investing in new things for their own businesses back home.
So this really represents not only the economic development of Australia's tomato industry, it represents the economic development of Tonga. It's just a great win-win scenario.
JEMIMA GARRETT: You said you'll be offering 12,000 visas but under the pilot program you couldn't fill many, many fewer than that. What makes you think you'll be able to fill all those jobs?
RICHARD MARLES: Well, that's a fair question but the answer to that is that we've learned a lot over the course of the pilot, as you would expect us to do, that's what a pilot is about. In the process of that, towards the end of 2010, we did tinker with the system, significantly, and provided greater flexibilities. What that did is see greater numbers come through.
I also think, to be fair, our timing probably wasn't the best in terms of establishing this. We did it off the end of a 10 year drought in Australia and agricultural production was at its lowest. But in the last 12 months we've seen numbers pick up significantly. We are confident that if numbers can continue at that level and continue to grow, given that we've expanded this to other countries, that we will fill the 12,000 places over the course of the four years. I'm confident that that will happen. I think that's going to make a real difference, first of all, to the Australian economy. It really is going to make a huge difference to the productivity of our horticulture industry and the other pilot industries I've mentioned. But I can't tell you how important that is for the countries from which these workers come.
On average they will be earning $12,000 a season. Now, $12,000 is the annual average wage in Vanuatu and Tonga. On average they will remit something like $5000 back per season; $5000 is something like three times the annual income in Kiribati or PNG. You know, this is revolution in terms of the opportunity it provides these workers and the prosperity it will provide them back at home.
JEMIMA GARRETT: Will you be making any changes to make the program better known amongst employers, and also to cope with the competition from backpackers because, with the global financial crisis hitting Europe, there are a lot of backpackers in Australia now?
RICHARD MARLES: Look, again, a good question. I think this conference is part of that. I think it is about letting employers know that it exists, and there is definitely a job to do in telling this story — and it's a really good story — to growers and other employers who are eligible to employ under this scheme, to tell them about the scheme and its benefits. So we'll continue to do that.
In terms of competition with backpackers, at the end of the day the Pacific workers speak for themselves on that. The productivity they are able to bring to the task sells itself. You only need to talk to those growers who have employed them and see the benefits they're getting in terms of savings in their business. This is going to be something which takes off from the point of view of the Australian growers and the Australian employers. I don't have any concern about them being able to compete with backpackers in that sense.
JEMIMA GARRETT: We've seen how the program works in horticulture. How will it work beyond horticulture?
RICHARD MARLES: I suppose the starting point for that is that we're looking at industries where there are labour shortages, where we are struggling to find Australians to do the work. That's an important principle in this so this is not taking Australian jobs. This is actually filling gaps in the labour market which currently exist. And we'll continue to review that.
In looking at aquaculture, in looking at cane growing, in looking at cotton, and indeed accommodation in certain areas, we're looking at industries where there is a demonstrated shortage of Australian labour and where we think this scheme could work well to fill those needs.
Now, those new industries are being done on a pilot basis, so we want to see that it works. We want to make sure that this isn't displacing Australian labour in those areas.
But if it works, as we imagine it will, there is the potential for that to turn into a more permanent scheme for those industries.
And that's the principle upon which we will continue with this program going into the future.
- Parliamentary Secretary's Office: (02) 6277 4330
- Departmental Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555