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The Future of the Seasonal Worker Programme

The Future of the Seasonal Worker Programme


The Future of the Seasonal Worker Programme

Article by: Hari Yellina (Orchard Tech)

John Howard, under pressure from farmers in relation to workforce shortages, but unwilling to create a seasonal worker program, introduced the second-year backpacker visa in 2005 to be granted in return for three months (more specifically, 88 days) of agricultural work in the first year. The policy shift was both transformational and damaging. It pushed tens of thousands to work on farms to get that second-year visa.

The number of backpackers claiming the extension rose to 40,000 within a decade. The reform certainly solved the problem of agricultural labour shortages, but no safeguards were put in place and exploitation of backpackers has been rife ever since. Ten years later, the Fair Work Ombudsman conducted two inquiries. The findings supported the view that “the work-for-visa system is broken” and uncovered “an environment of unreasonable and unlawful requirements imposed on visa holders by unscrupulous businesses”.

A major 2017 University of Adelaide study funded by horticulture industry associations found that ” the SWP results in less exploitation of workers … when compared with other low-skilled visa pathways”, such as backpackers. Now, there are signs that the scales may be further tilting in the direction of seasonal workers. Two parliamentary committees have recommended fundamental reforms to the way backpacker visas work.

The backpacker visas, the committee argued, should be refocused on their original purpose of facilitating cultural exchange, and the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) should become the “predominant source of low and semi-skilled labour in Australia’s agriculture industry.” The government is yet to respond to either committee but, at least rhetorically, seems to be moving in the same direction. These are all positive signs of a much-needed change in balance, but any claim of victory for the SWP would be premature. There are still many more backpackers than seasonal workers on Australia’s farms.

Not all get their third-year visa from working on a farm, but last year 73 per cent did. In 2020-21 more backpackers gained a third-year visa from at least six months of farm work in their second year than SWP visas were issued. Again, third-year backpacker visa holders don’t have to work on a farm, but if you have been working on a farm for their first two years, you probably will for your third.