Pacific Island Seasonal Worker Program needs stronger union role

August 16, 2017: So far the Seasonal Worker Programs for Pacific Island and Timor-Leste workers in Australia have been kept separate from trade agreements like PACER-Plus. Trade agreements are rigid and hard to change, but a stand-alone agreement such as the Seasonal Worker Program for horticultural workers, can be adjusted. As Nic Maclellan argues in his Development Policy article, there is strong evidence that significant change is needed.

The most common concerns expressed by SWP participants are unreasonable deductions, unreasonable overtime and piece rates, overcrowded accommodation and above-market rate charges for accommodation and transport.

The fundamental imbalance of power between employers and non-citizen workers has been highlighted in the 2008 Deegan inquiry into s457 skilled workers; the 2016 Joint Committee on Migration report into the Seasonal Worker Program; and the 2016 Senate employment references committee report, appropriately titled “A National Disgrace.”

Union density is low in horticulture, which relies on casual labour, grey nomads and backpackers, especially at harvest time. In October 2015 the National Union of Workers in Australia and Vanuatu’s National Workers Union signed an agreement to coordinate action for seasonal workers, but union engagement is resisted by governments and employer bodies.

Early in 2017, Australia’s largest SWP-approved employer, MADEC, acknowledged a “misunderstanding” after it pressured ni-Vanuatu workers to quit the NUW or face loss of return employment.

Now more than ever, it is important to keep temporary migrant labour arrangements out of trade agreements, and to support action to empower workers and their unions to stop abuses.