Researchers from the Australian National University are warning the Morrison government that the visa changes which will allow backpackers to work on farms for up to three years, will stunt the growth of a separate scheme to bring in Pacific island workers.
The Pacific program is designed to offer employment opportunities to workers from Timor Leste, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. While it has grown fast, it remains relatively small, with only 8,500 workers coming to Australia in the past financial year. The government insists its growth will continue and expects 14,000 workers to come in 2018-19.
But researchers at the ANU’s Development Policy Centre said the expansion of the working backpacker visa, announced by the government earlier this week, will see more growers and labour hire companies choose backpackers over Pacific workers.
“The supply of workers under the two schemes is closely related,” Matthew Dornan, the centre’s deputy director, told SBS News.
The changes will lift the number of backpackers allowed in from 23 largely developing nations and allow them to stay for up to three years, provided they work on farms and only for one year with each employer. “That's going to lead to a big increase in the number of backpackers on farms and they're going to act as substitutes for Pacific islanders under the seasonal worker program,” he said.
“I think on balance, we're probably going to see – if not a decline – at the very least much slower growth in the seasonal worker program than we would have seen in the absence of these changes to the backpacker visa.”
The Pacific scheme was “bureaucratic” and involved a lot of “red tape” to prevent exploitation, Mr Dornan said. Nonetheless, SBS News has exposed more than a dozen deaths on Australian farms under the scheme. In contrast, employers face less upfront costs when they bring in backpackers and have no obligation to provide accommodation or pastoral care, he said.
None of the Pacific nations are eligible for the expanded subclass 462 backpacker visa. Mr Dornan said the changes would have a negative impact on Australia - Pacific relations if the growth of the fledgling program was stunted as he predicted.