The Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) is proving very successful for many growers and a new variation is being tested to make it more available to crops with shorter seasons.

The Pilot

A trial within the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) is being undertaken so that crops with shorter harvest periods can access these highly motivated workers from our Pacific neighbours and East Timor.  Growers of commodities such as cherries and apples have found it difficult to use the SWP simply because their seasons are too short to be able to standalone comply with requirements. 

However a new Pilot has been made available to a limited number of proven Approved Employers, in specific areas, to see if relaxed requirements can broaden the number of horticulture commodities that can use these workers.

A slow start to the SWP

When the SWP first appeared in 2009 as the Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot, it was hard to entice growers to embrace it because there were so many backpackers available.  The working holidaymakers undertook seasonal farm work mainly in order to qualify for a second year visa.  There were so many available than when one moved on after qualifying, there were many more to take their place.  Despite the frustrating and time-consuming nature of constantly having to retrain pickers and packers, little effort was required to replace them.  Even the exasperating habit of partying a little too hard at times, resulting in unreliability in the workplace, was offset by having lots of replacement options for the growers.

Once the peak of backpackers travelling to Australia passed a few years ago more effort was required to source replacement workers.  The reliability factor and staff turnover started to bite a little harder.  That’s when growers were more prepared to give the workers from our Pacific neighbours and East Timor a go.  And for those that started with these highly motivated workers – they wondered why they ever hesitated.

Reliability is highly valued

Reliability has always been the greatest attribute growers have sought in employees and the SWP workforce has this in spades.  Because Australian dollars are so valuable to families at home in their developing nations, the desire to work here is high.  Turning up to work on time every day is the only option in their minds.  And under the SWP the same individuals can return each year, so the workers want to ensure the boss is impressed so there is no doubt they will be invited back the following season.

Limits on the SWP

The SWP has been highly regulated from commencement of the full Programme in 2012.  There has been a lot of care from the Commonwealth Government to ensure the workers are treated well and enjoy all their legal rights.  The downside is that the Programme has lacked flexibility, with all approvals needed in advance of the entire stay in our country.  This has meant that each farm the workers are to work on, and each task in which they will engage, must be approved in detail well before the worker leaves their home country. 

For year-round commodities like vegetables or protected cropping, or long harvest periods such as that enjoyed by citrus, this is not an issue.  However for short harvest commodities like cherries or apples, the length of the season is not sufficient for a viable work assignment.  Generally there needs to be around four to five months minimum time in Australia to allow for the worker to repay their airfares and arrival costs, and then to generate sufficient savings to make their trip worthwhile.

More flexibility is the key

The Regional Pilot has more relaxed processes so that approvals can be given for the workers to be engaged on an initial farm assignment while the Approved Employer establishes the next job for them to move onto thereafter.  Approvals are still required before the move, but this can be arranged while the workers are actively engaged in Australia.  The Department of EmploymentSkillsSmall and Family Business (the Department) will still closely monitor subsequent placements and living arrangements to ensure the same standards are maintained, but approvals are not required for the move prior to leaving their home country.   

The biggest winners under this arrangement are commodities that do not last long enough to qualify for the full Programme but can offer substantial work for around a couple of months.  If there is work within the same region on other farms, likely to be with different crops, that is the ultimate situation.  Accommodation and access to community resources such as shopping and medical facilities are items that must be approved by the Department.  If these can remain the same for the next farm assignment that would be ideal, however it is not essential.  Workers can be moved to a different location if necessary, but downtime not working and the logistics and cost of relocating will still limit options to some degree.

The details

The regions where the Pilot has been established at this stage are around the Sunraysia in north-west Victoria, the Goulburn Valley in northern Victoria, and the Riverina in south-west NSW.

Growers looking for more about the Pilot can find information on the Department’s website or they can call the NHLIS Call Centre on 1800 062 332 for details. 

Although the tight controls on the Programme remain to ensure its integrity, this pilot to test flexibility will be welcomed by segments of the horticulture industry that have been locked out so far.