By Josh Bavas
Updated Wed 21 Aug 2013, 11:34am AEST
Employment agents blame illegal workers for flooding the market and say red tape is preventing honest food producers from finding workers in time for harvest.
The Seasonal Workers Program allows employers to hire workers from eight Pacific nations and East Timor, if they cannot find local Australian employees.
The Federal Government allocated 12,000 places in the four years to July 2016 but in the first year, only 1,454 workers were placed in horticulture jobs and 19 in accommodation.
It was only recently extended to include the accommodation sector and the aquaculture, cotton and cane industries.
Manager Nicole Taylor says before the trial, it was near impossible to find workers in her Broome resort.
However, she says she is now employing more than a dozen workers from East Timor.
“It was available to us at a time of year where we do need a lot more labour and we just haven’t been able to source the number of staff for line levels such as housekeeping and food and beverage type positions that we needed,” she said.
“When the program became available we were particularly interested because not only are we finding a great labour source, we also know that these workers are coming from a country where the unemployment rate is particularly high for the youth and they can take back some skills to help their own country.”
Employment agent Ben Scheelings finds seasonal workers for farmers across the country.
He says the Federal Government should consider scrapping requirements for employers to pay for their worker’s airfares.
“Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, the governments there have already said to me, ‘look we are happy to pay the airfares, we just want our workers to go there and earn some money’,” he said.
He says many food producers find it hard competing with those employing illegal workers.
“Illegal workers are prepared to receive $10 an hour, you don’t have to pay tax, mum’s the word,” Mr Scheelings said.
Emmanuel Bani employs seasonal workers for fruit and vegetable picking.
He says he knows of a number of farmers in Queensland who employ workers on expired tourist visas.
“It’s very, very hard for us to compete against when farmers accommodate illegal workers here and underpay them almost $9 an hour in every farm,” Mr Bani said.
He says employers often cannot find workers in time for harvesting their crops.
“When the farmer wants the workers, we don’t have the workers here, they lose their crops,” Mr Bani said. “They never end up in the markets.”
Employment Minister Brendan O’Connor has defended the sluggish program, saying the numbers are expected to rise in the remaining three years.
“Demand for seasonal workers is anticipated to grow each year, and the number of program places available to Australian employers increases each year to reflect this,” he said.
“Trial arrangements in accommodation, aquaculture, cane and cotton are small scale, and designed to test the whether Seasonal Worker Program arrangements could operate successfully in these sectors where Australian employers can demonstrate that they cannot source enough Australian workers to meet their seasonal labour needs.
“The Australian Government is working with the trial sectors to increase employers’ participation in the trials to ensure that these sectors can be appropriately tested, to determine whether they are appropriate for inclusion in the Seasonal Worker Program on an ongoing basis.”
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