AS the various agriculture sectors wait to see the outcome from the Working Holiday Maker Visa Review, discussion has arisen over whether the Seasonal Worker Program could fill the gap should backpackers decided to venture elsewhere.
The Seasonal Worker Program (SWP) began in 2012, building on the three-year trial known as the Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme.
It assists agricultural businesses unable to source local Australian labour to fill their seasonal low-skilled vacancies.
The businesses are provided with an opportunity to organise a team of seasonal workers in advance of the season.
Workers can be recruited from eight Pacific island countries and Timor-Leste.
But citrus grower and Voice of Horticulture chair Tania Chapman said there are significant logistical and financial hurdles in utilising the SWP.
"The government has previously made comments that one of the solutions to our harvest labour is the Seasonal Worker Program," she said.
"The issues with the program are that you can bring in a set number of workers for six months and you have to give them a set number of hours or a minimum weekly wage.
"Given horticulture is dependent on weather, on markets, and fruit can ripen at slightly different times each year, this type of labour program does not give the flexibility we need to harvest our crops.
"But the other resounding thing is most average growers simply cannot afford the cost.
"To bring in 30 workers is an upfront cost of $80,000- airfares, accommodation, place of prayer, transport- I know of very few business’ that could afford this."
There are longer term benefits to choosing seasonal workers over working holiday makers, according to the director of the Development Policy Centre at the Australian National University, Professor Stephen Howes.
He said it was important to remember backpackers are essentially coming for a holiday and will work to support that, whereas seasonal workers come with the lone task of earning an income.
"Australia is the only country I know of that deliberately sets out to entice the citizens of other rich countries to pick our fruit and vegetables," he said.
"Developing countries are almost entirely excluded from backpacker visa arrangements. Other countries direct such opportunities to developing countries: America to Mexico, Canada the Caribbean."
He said since the introduction of the second-year visa arrangement in 2006 for backpackers there has been 10-fold increase in working holiday visitors.
Professor Howes said workers from the Pacific Islands were generally more reliable, work harder and wouldn't necessarily have to be re-trained if they returned to work on the same property.
Queensland mandarin producer and exporter Ironbark Citrus has used seasonal workers since the second year of the Seasonal Worker Pilot Program in 2009.
In an article for the Australian National University's Development Policy Centre, owner Sue Jenkin said she was a great supporter of the program, and firmly believed that, despite its slow start, it provided an excellent solution to the problem of access to labour that the horticultural industry faced.
The business sources more than 70 seasonal workers annually in a series of four recruitments during April, September, December and March, providing overlapping groups at times of peak labour demand.
The workers come from Tonga, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and Samoa.
"Our seasonal workers are more productive and efficient than our other workers," Mrs Jenkin said.
"Because of productivity gains, which strongly correlate with our involvement in the SWP over the past five years, our cost per bin of fruit picked has decreased, despite the significant wage rises that farm workers have received over this time.
"Additionally, our total number of workers employed has actually declined, despite our increased production.
"I believe that this reflects the stability of our seasonal worker labour force. In a three month period during our 2013 season, we found that our seasonal workers earned an average monthly wage of $4387.16, compared with an average of $836.07 for our Australian and backpacker workforce.
"These numbers clearly demonstrate the huge turnover of our Australian and backpacker workforce, with no one staying long enough to earn the wages the seasonal workers do."
Ironbark Citrus also utilises backpacker and local labour, but according to Mrs Jenkin, the Pacific workers provide other gains such as reduced recruitment, training and
administrative costs because of their vastly reduced turnover.
Some workers have been returning to the property for six years.
The ABC recently reported that the Tongan ministry hopes to increase the number of workers coming to Australia each year under the SWP.
It reported the Tongan minister for internal affairs, Sosefo Fe'ao Vakata as saying there were still more than 1000 applicants hoping to find a work placement in Australia to join the 2179 already here.
The National Farmers Federation (NFF) this week suggested temporary migrants could be further utilised to meet the agriculture labour shortage.
The NFF seized on the Productivity Commissions’ report handed down on Tuesday on migrant intake into Australia which called for the scrapping of the backpacker tax
NFF president Brent Finlay said the report solidified the organisation’s long-held calls for policy that better allowed farmers to tap into the large temporary labour force offered by working holiday makers and other temporary visa holders.
“This is of clear mutual benefit to both farmers and those wishing to work whilst on holiday in Australia and a relatively simple way to inject cash into the national economy through agricultural productivity and enhanced spending in regional communities,” Mr Finlay said.
“It is important to note today’s report explicitly calls on the Government to give greater
consideration to the community-wide costs of both the backpacker tax and the refusal of
Government to recognise voluntary farm work as contributing towards a second year visa.”