ABC Eyre Peninsula and West Coast with Sarina Locke
SUBJECT: Changes to the Seasonal Worker Programme.
SARINA LOCKE: What is this announcement? Give it to me in the nuts and bolts – an expansion of seasonal workers.
MINISTER CASH: We have the Seasonal Worker Programme, it used to be primarily that you could only work in horticulture. Based on feedback that we have received from those who use the programme, in particular those within our agricultural sector, we have now broadened the work that you can do. We now include the agricultural sector. We are also trialling it in certain places in the hospitality industry. Very exciting for all concerned.
SARINA LOCKE: You are also allowing them to work on cattle, sheep, grain and mixed enterprises? What sort of demand was there for that?
MINISTER CASH: There was a lot of demand as your listeners would understand. When the work needs to be done, it needs to be done. You just can’t wait for a workforce to come to you. It is time critical. We need to ensure that we are offering Australian farmers the opportunity to substantially lift output during what we know are critical times of the year.
SARINA LOCKE: How well trained will these seasonal workers be and will you allow those trained staff to return on the season?
MINISTER CASH: Very much so. There are strict criteria in terms of those people who are able to come here and certainly, a lot of the work that has to be done is low skilled work. So there is not necessarily a lot of training involved. This is to ensure that at all times, farmers and those in the agricultural industry do have the labour that they need and they can’t wait another month, two months, three months. It’s critical, it’s seasonal, the work has got to be done and we need to ensure obviously for our own benefits ultimately as consumers that this work is done in a timely fashion.
SARINA LOCKE: Do you acknowledge that there has been worker exploitation there has been a case in North Queensland, where workers from Vanuatu are now going to court. There has been a labour hire company exploiting them is the allegation, so do you acknowledge that there has been cases of exploitation in this programme.
MINISTER CASH: This Government does not tolerate exploitation whether it is the Seasonal Worker Programme, 457 programme or domestically. In terms of this particular programme, we have ensured that there are strong protections and monitoring arrangements that have been put in place. We vet employers who are seeking to recruit workers under the programme. It is not every employer who is able to access labour under this programme. It is only approved employers. We ensure that all approved employers enter into legally enforceable agreements with the Commonwealth Government obviously represented by the Department of Employment.
In particular and this is important, all workers who perform work under the Seasonal Worker Programme are protected by Australian workplace laws in the same manner. If there are allegations of exploitation, the Department of Employment and the Government take this very seriously. We have the power to terminate agreements with employers if they don’t meet their obligations. Basically what that means for the employer is, you will no longer be able to recruit under the Seasonal Worker Programme. You don’t get access to this labour. You know the labour is critical, you know the work needs to be done. [Interrupted]
SARINA LOCKE: What about reforming the programme in particular not just workplace relations but also cultural and religious understandings, of perhaps Christian communities people coming from pacific islands?
MINISTER CASH: There is that exchange of information both at the place where the person comes from, so they very much are told about Australia’s workplace laws and what to expect in Australia. At the other end there is the explanation given to employers as to what they should be expecting from the particular people coming here. What we are both looking at, is people coming here from the Pacific Islands and also Timor Leste….
SARINA LOCKE: Which island, which new Pacific Islands will be included in this programme?
MINISTER CASH: Participating countries include Fiji, Kirabati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and also Timor Leste.
SARINA LOCKE: Fiji was included recently, this is not a new inclusion is it?
MINISTER CASH: No, basically we have expanded some of the countries not necessarily in conjunction with this announcement. There are more participating countries.
SARINA LOCKE: You have had eight and a half thousand since 2012 apply for seasonal work through this programme from the pacific islands. How many a year do you see coming?
MINISTER CASH: Very much this is a demand driven programme and this is the way a programme such as this should operate. In the first instance the employer has to exhaust the Australian labour market because a fundamental principle under the programme still remains that if there is an Australian looking to do this work and is able to you should employ them first. So in the first instance you have to exhaust the Australian labour market. In the event you have done that and you can’t get anybody, then you are able to access the labour under the Seasonal Worker Programme. Very much it is demand driven if an employer can’t find an Australian to do the work but we know that they need the work to be undertaken because obviously the nature of the industries, harvest time is a critical time of the year, you need for that crop to be picked and that is what this programme is about.
SARINA LOCKE: Do you acknowledge that there has been a shortage of backpacker workers especially since there has been a change to visas, increasing costs and also the proposal for an increase in tax on backpacker workers.
MINISTER CASH: No not at all, that is the Work and Holiday Visa – it is a very separate visa to this particular visa the seasonal worker programme. The Seasonal Worker Programme is very much an economic aid programme the working holiday maker programme a very different purpose, that’s a cultural exchange programme. People undertaking a Working Holiday programme, they don’t necessarily just come here to work – that is all about having an extended holiday and earning money through short term employment placements, go off and spending that money and stimulating the Australian economy. Maybe taking another holiday and doing a bit more work [Interrupted]
SARINA LOCKE: So are they going to be taxed at a rate of 32.5 cents in the dollar for every dollar they earn with no tax free threshold. They are going to be able to spend less aren’t they?
MINISTER CASH: As I said, this is not a work programme, the Work and Holiday visa programme, this is about a cultural exchange programme and I don’t believe young people are going to stop coming to Australia, one of the greatest places if not the greatest place in the world to expand their horizons and get a taste of how fantastic this country is.
SARINA LOCKE: Will you consider reducing the rate of that proposed tax?
MINISTER CASH: That is something you would need to speak to the Treasurer about. My understanding is that the decision has been made and we will continue with the decision. Again though this is not a work visa this a cultural exchange programme enabling young travellers to have an extended holiday and then earn some money through short term employment placements it is fundamentally different to the Seasonal Worker Programme. Which is an economic aid programme..[interrupted]
SARAH LOCKE: So on this Seasonal Worker Programme, where you can get Pacific Island workers and Timor Leste workers how does an employer access that?
MINISTER CASH: Basically they have to go through the Department of Employment and they have to basically prove to the Department of Employment that they are in a position to take on these people and then they can become an approved employer. In the event that they become an approved employer they then enter into that contract of the agreement with the Department of Employment to ensure that they know what to do. If you have got any body there listening who wants to apply to recruit seasonal workers, you can go on to the Department of Employment website and it is www.employment.gov.au – information for employers on how to recruit seasonal workers, it’s all there for you. You can have a look at it and if you believe you are an employer and you do need these workers you can then make contact with the Department of Employment.
SARINA LOCKE: You have 70 approved employers at the moment – that doesn’t seem like many, and yet there have been cases of exploitation, have you stamped out the exploitation?
MINISTER CASH: Whenever there have been cases of exploitation we take it very seriously. In terms of the figures, since the 1st July 2012 about 8,600 visas have been issued to people under the programme, to obviously support the seasonal labour needs. I think you are right, it is about 70 approved employers. Again, the sanctions, if you are an approved employer and you have been found to have breached this programme to have exploited a worker. The sanctions are very strong and basically mean that you will not be able to access this labour again.
SARINA LOCKE: Senator Cash, how long can the seasonal workers stay, how many times can they return and what sort of tax will they pay?
MINISTER CASH: Seasonal workers can work for a period of up to 6 months obviously to meet the nature of the seasonal demand. In terms of the workers recruited Kirabati, Nauru or Tuvalu, they are able to be employed for up to 9 months. The reason for this is due to the higher costs of transportation to and from Australia for citizens from these countries. In terms of the taxation I understand it is a flat rate of 15 per cent. What we really encourage with this programme is that you do return to Australia. You get that relationship with your approved employer. You understand the nature of the work that is involved. Very much then it contributes to the aid focus of the programme which is very much you are able to take the money home and you build up your own community and you support your own family.
SARINA LOCKE: Thank you very much – enjoy your week.
MINISTER CASH: No thank you, it was a pleasure.