BACKPACKERS are pushing guest workers from South Pacific nations out of fruit-picking jobs, despite a federal government commitment to help neighbouring countries by opening up jobs for their nationals.
A World Bank study released on Wednesday says a New Zealand program is providing about four times as many jobs as the parallel Australian seasonal worker program (SWP) because there is less red tape involved and lower costs.
But the report also suggests a curb on competition from backpacking tourists in Australia under a liberalised visa regime and points out there is much less competition in New Zealand from backpackers and illegal farm workers.
"The reputation of the SWP is still poor amongst non-participating growers, but moderately positive amongst approved employers and participating growers, though these latter groups find the scheme's administrative requirements burdensome," it says.
The seasonal worker program was introduced by the previous Labor government to help regional countries, despite union reservations, and embraced by the present government as a market-oriented approach to economic assistance just as it embarked on a series of large aid cuts.
The World Bank supports guest worker schemes for Pacific countries because they provide remittance income to countries which have question marks over long-term growth.
But last financial year Australia issued only 2014 visas to guest workers from nine Pacific countries to work in the horticulture sector for between 14 weeks and six months, which was below the cap of 2500 workers.
It compares with the New Zealand cap of 9000 and the industry's employment of 75,000 to 175,000 workers annually. The report says employers find it easier to employ illegal foreign workers or backpackers, who are able to extend one-year Australian visas by an extra year if they work for about three months in labour-starved rural areas.
Employers have also complained about the regulatory burden imposed by needing to provide a guaranteed amount of work, pay return airfares and also superannuation, and do labour testing before employing guest workers.
But the World Bank report says farmers who employ guest workers generally find they are more reliable than backpackers and illegal foreign workers, suggesting the program would be more effective if it was better promoted to prospective employees.
"The abundance of illegal workers and backpackers appears to have become a structural feature of the industry (but) not all growers were satisfied with the quality of their existing workforce," it says.
"Bridging this gap will require eliminating widespread misconceptions about the SWP and further promoting the gains of hiring Pacific seasonal workers."
It says that, while employers would resist any tightening of the backpacker holiday visa program, the SWP would be more competitive if the regional guest workers could be employed in any of the regions open to backpackers without the additional need for labour market testing by employers.