In Crikey yesterday, Christian Kerr reported on the Centre for Independent Studies criticism of seasonal labour (“guest worker”) schemes for Pacific Islanders to do horticultural work in Australia. But who does this work now? According to evidence presented to the Senate Inquiry into Pacific Seasonal Contract Labour, in some horticultural regions 80% of seasonal workers are backpackers.

More than 100,000 working holidaymakers visit Australia each year under reciprocal agreements with 18 countries (none of them Pacific Island nations), which are meant to give young travellers (18-30) an appreciation of the Australian lifestyle through short bursts of paid work “incidental” to their trip. But what began as an “experiential” scheme has become a labour market program for rural areas: backpackers are offered the carrot of a second twelve month visa if they stick out three months working in agriculture.

Does it make sense to have Hans from Copenhagen cutting grapes in Mildura and Chuck from Vancouver plucking tomatoes in Shepparton? Or would it be in Australia’s interest to offer these jobs to Pacific Islanders who are desperate for work, income and experience?

The CIS is right that seasonal work schemes won’t solve the Pacific’s problems of unemployment and underemployment. But they could make a material difference to the lives of significant numbers of people, their families and home communities.
There are reasons to move cautiously in opening up Australia’s agricultural labour market to Pacific workers, and anyone who reads chapter four of the World Bank report — “At Home & Away: Expanding Job Opportunities for Pacific Islanders Through Labour Mobility” (to which I contributed), will be left in no doubt that the devil lies in the detail.

But a well designed and well regulated program could be a win-win situation for Australian growers and Pacific Island workers. Small-scale pilot schemes could test the ground and identify and resolve problems. It seems likely that New Zealand will lead the way. In the meantime, perhaps Canberra could take up the CIS suggestion to make serious efforts to assist more Indigenous Australians to find work in seasonal agriculture.