Background to the program
The Australian Government is focused on developing a strong northern Australian economy, as an area with many resources and access to international markets. A major part of this agenda means attracting Australian businesses and workers to come and work in Northern Australia.
However, the Government’s White Paper on Developing Northern Australia: Our North, Our Future has highlighted the challenges for employers in Northern Australia in attracting workers:
Industries in Northern Australia requiring flexible and mobile labour;
The significant personal and financial barriers for Australian workers to move to, and within, north Australia;
Economic and labour market conditions differing significantly both at regional and sub-regional level.
In response to these challenges, Australia has established a number of labour schemes with the Pacific Islands, one of which is the successful Seasonal Worker Program (SWP).
Overview of the program
SWP began in July 2012 following a successful four-year pilot scheme, with the stated objectives to fill seasonal labour shortages in the Australian agricultural sector, accommodation sector and the tourism sector, as well as to contribute to the economic development of the Pacific Islands and Timor Leste.
Since its introduction, the program has quickly expanded to meet demand, including by expanding the types of sectors eligible to recruit workers, and by removing a cap on the number of workers eligible for the program.
How does it work
Through the SWP, employers who have been approved by the Australian government can recruit low skilled or unskilled seasonal workers from Pacific island countries and Timor-Leste.
Workers can apply for a Temporary Work (International Relations visa (subclass 403) in the Seasonal Worker Program stream. Their visas are valid for the period of the employment contract, which can be granted for up to 3 years, however with the condition that they only stay in Australia for 7 months in a year, or 10 months if they are from Kiribati, Nauru or Tuvalu.
Who has already signed up
Managing Director of employment agency The Job Shop, Andrew Coldbeck, stated that there has been a big shift in interest towards the Seasonal Worker Program across Northern Australia, as employers seek a more stable workforce, and workers they can rely on to return year-in-year-out.
Who might benefit from it
Hence, the program provides clear benefit to Australian businesses who cannot find Australian labour to meet their seasonal needs. Businesses develop strong relationships with the workers, who they train and can rely on to return next season. They also report increased efficiencies by having access to a productive seasonal workforce with reduced absenteeism and staff turnover.
Media controversy has emerged this year in relation to the SWP, with 14 Pacific Island workers having died working in Australia over the course of the program. These incidents highlight broader issues of exploitation of workers in the horticultural industry in Australia, and provide a crucial reminder to employers that foreign workers must be subject to fair working conditions, just as Australian workers should be.
However, despite these concerns, the SWP has clearly held a positive impact for workers as well. According to the World Bank’s 2017 report, workers are bringing home on average a fourfold increase in income to their families and communities, and reporting extremely high satisfaction with the program.
 Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, https://www.industry.gov.au/strategies-for-the-future/northern-australia-agenda
 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Design Summary: Pastoral Care Support Services Program: Northern Australia Worker Pilot Program, https://dfat.gov.au/about-us/publications/Documents/pacific-microstates-pastoral-care-support-services-program-design-summary.pdf
 Department of Jobs and Small Business, https://www.jobs.gov.au/seasonal-worker-programme; Government Response to the Joint Standing Committee on Migration report, Inquiry into the Seasonal Worker Programme, https://docs.jobs.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/government_response_to_seasonal_change_report_0.pdf
 DFAT, Pacific Labour Mobility, https://dfat.gov.au/geo/pacific/engagement/pacific-labour-mobility/Pages/default.aspx
 World Bank report, http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/572391522153097172/pdf/122270-repl-PUBLIC.pdf, x.
 ABC news article, ‘Seasonal Workers Program a growing trend for Top End farms, http://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2017-05-15/seasonal-worker-program-a-growing-trend-for-northern-farms/8511226
 ABC, ‘Seasonal Worker Program in Australia gets backing from farmers but with concerns about rogue operators’, http://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2017-12-21/seasonal-worker-program-supported-by-farmers/9276672
 SBS News, ‘Who are Australia’s seasonal workers’ https://www.sbs.com.au/news/who-are-australia-s-seasonal-workers
 ABC, Australia’s Seasonal Workers Program a win for Pacific Islanders, too’ http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-05-30/pacific-islands-australian-seasonal-workers-program-fruitpicking/9807894; World Bank report, http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/572391522153097172/pdf/122270-repl-PUBLIC.pdf.