Changes to Australia’s Pacific worker programmes have been welcomed but questions remain over the pathway to permanent residency.
The Australian government hailed their reforms to the labour programs as a “new era”, claiming they are designed to reduce red tape for employers.
It announced the changes on Tuesday and said they would streamline the application process for the two labour programmes, the Pacific Seasonal Worker program and the newer Pacific Labour Scheme, with Australian employers able to to join both programmes through a single application.
“We know that Pacific workers have been filling a lot of skill shortages in regional Australia. We know that they’ve been an absolute lifeblood for our farmers, but also in other areas such as aged care and accommodation,” Australia’s Minister for the Pacific and International Development Zed Seselja told Pacific Beat.
“And what we’re going to do, what we’re announcing today is to improve that to streamline that,” he said on Tuesday.
The streamlining involves a commitment to faster application response times and a greater allowance for employers to recruit under both the seasonal worker programme (SWP) and the PLS, which provides workers in areas like meat processing and aged care.
The government aims to safeguard worker welfare with more funding for Pacific Labour Facility staff to be closer to workers and employers, and for the Fair Work Ombudsman to do education and compliance.
Recruitment caps for certain employers hiring seasonal workers will be doubled and the 45 year age limit will be removed for PLS workers.
Andrew Coldbeck, the founder of Northern Territory employment agency Job Shop, which manages many Pacific workers, welcomed the reforms, including the age limit removal.
“We had some candidates for PLS knocked back because of their age but they had outstanding experience and they were working in the hospitality sector so it’s not as, they weren’t gonna go out and pick melons,” he told the Northern Territory Country Hour.
“They were hired for their other expertise and experience so aged over 45, we welcome that as well”.
Andrew Coldbeck is also in favour of the new scheme’s emphasis on upskilling and career development.
“I like the add-on skills that they’re talking about…training, a lot of the seasonal workers respond really well to the tasks that they’re given and show initiative and it’s really good to recognise that by upskilling them and helping them get qualifications so I certainly like that,” he said.
One of the major criticisms of the existing Pacific labour programs has been a lack of pathways to permanent residency in Australia, particularly when it was announced as part of the recent Agricultural visa for South-east Asian workers.
But pathways to permanent residency for Pacific workers are still absent from the reforms announced this week.
Ryan Edwards, the Deputy Director of the ANU’s Development Policy Centre, said while he’s broadly supportive of the changes, he thinks the focus on upskilling rather than permanent residency pathways is strange.
“I find it interesting that the emphasis there was on career pathways for workers. But once you start putting skill levels into there, and certificates, then it makes people eligible for the skills visas, which this seems like a bit of a longer in a roundabout way to build in permanent pathways into the scheme,” he said.
“Whereas we could be doing that in more efficient and direct ways”.
Pacific Minister Zed Seselja said the scheme will remain without the permanent residency pathway for now.
“No decisions have been taken on that. I have an open mind on that question.”
“”But what we are doing is certainly talking very closely to representatives of our Pacific island family, about what their needs are as well. So those things will be considered,” he said.
The Australian Government says further reforms will be announced later in the year.