NZ’s seasonal worker success: lessons for Australia

Seasonal work in agriculture is a long-established way for migrants from low-income countries to access low-skilled work in OECD countries. Australia has far fewer seasonal workers than comparable countries. Australia now has no cap on its numbers of seasonal workers, but the take-up only reached just over 3,000 in 2014-15. Why does Australia have such a low number of seasonal workers per head of population? Canada in 2013 had eight times more seasonal workers and the USA had twice as many seasonal workers. However, New Zealand outperformed Australia by a large margin with eighteen times more seasonal workers per head of population in 2013, a margin that will increase with the change in the seasonal worker quota from 8,000 to 9,000 in 2015.

Why has New Zealand been more successful than Australia in employing seasonal workers and what are the lessons for Australia? The demands of different markets and the different capacities of employers in New Zealand and Australia to engage in export markets have shaped the take-up of the two seasonal work programs. Horticulture and viticulture are leading export sectors in New Zealand. The New Zealand government has had a strong interest in working closely with growers to identify and address obstacles. The Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme was part of a wider strategy developed in 2004 to ensure these lead sectors were adopting best practice to lift productivity. The scheme was designed from the start from the stated need of employers for a more reliable and productive workforce than existing sources of labour. New Zealand employers also agreed to a clamp down on illegal workers and the registration of labour contractors to do this.

A key driver for the change in employer willingness to take on the extra cost of employing seasonal workers is New Zealand horticulture’s strong focus on the requirements of export markets. The demands of export markets in Europe require exporters to meet a supplier code of practice called GlobalGAP. This code of practice places a strong emphasis not only on high product quality, but also on the health, safety and welfare of workers involved in the harvest. New Zealand growers seeking to export wanted a stable, committed and trained seasonal workforce to harvest a high-quality product and to reduce waste. Employers also wanted to remove any threat to their export trade through bad publicity by stopping the use of illegal workers and improving the working conditions of the workforce.

Australia’s horticulture sector has been much more focused on meeting domestic demand, and the demand of the two largest supermarket chains. While more than 60% of New Zealand’s apple harvest in 2014 was exported, only 1-2% of total marketable production of apples and pears for Australia was exported. According to the 2012 annual report of GlobalGAP, there are 1,516 accredited producers in NZ and only 153 in Australia.

The Australian Seasonal Worker Program (SWP) was not developed from the ground up with strong employer involvement. Its framework was instead copied by Canberra from New Zealand and implemented in a top-down way without any understanding of the underlying success factors.

Judging by the responses of Australian horticulture employers to ANU-World Bank surveys in 2011 and 2014, the domestic market for horticulture is shaped by demand, based on cost and delivery on time. Paying more to lift quality is not evident as a major concern of growers in Australia. Most Australian employers of harvest labour also do not fear loss of markets due to bad publicity about the use of illegal workers or poor working conditions for legal workers. Four-out-of-five Australian growers surveyed in 2014 did not want to engage workers through the Seasonal Worker Program because they said there was no need to or that the costs and risks of doing so stopped them. It is important to note that the growers who did participate in the SWP had larger properties and harvest periods that are longer than the 14 weeks minimum period of work required by the SWP at the time of the survey.

A major increase in the take-up of the SWP in Australia is only likely if consumer and corporate buyers of fruit and vegetables demand changes to employment conditions in response to the growing evidence of poor working conditions for the harvest workforce (see here [pdf], here and here). Increasing media attention on stories of worker exploitation has the potential to foster a social media campaign for consumers to put more pressure on the major supermarket chains. Corporate buyers in turn will have to apply pressure on their suppliers for greater transparency and accountability for the health, safety and welfare of workers involved in the harvest. Another driver of change will come from a consolidation of ownership in the industry resulting in larger suppliers. Big operators have a greater incentive to seek productivity gains from a stable and trained workforce and have more resources to engage, train and pay workers appropriately. Only consumer pressure, corporate self-interest and a better resourced legal compliance system will improve employment conditions for the harvest workforce. These changes together would make it more attractive to employ workers under the Seasonal Worker Program.

Richard Curtain is an independent consultant with expertise in the areas of skill formation, program evaluation and analysis of youth labour markets. He works closely with Devpolicy on issues relating to Pacific labour mobility and is a regular Visiting Fellow.

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Richard Curtain

Richard Curtain is a research associate, and recent former research fellow, with the Development Policy Centre. He is an expert on Pacific labour markets and migration.


  • As members of the rich world, we must be increasingly aware of the exploitative practices that are sometimes employed in relation to migrant workers. The establishment of supplier codes of practice such as GlobalGAP are an important part of a fair free world economy. That New Zealand has ten times more suppliers who have signed up to this code than Australia is worrying and embarrassing – Australia is well behind on strategies to maintain ethical practice. We as consumers should avoid buying from or investing in the big supermarket chains that use unethical practices, as Australia Ethical Investment explains.
    It is also important to consider what these opportunities represent for a labour surplus country? Timor-Leste participates in the seasonal workers program with Australia, and they also have an agreement for a temporary workers scheme allowing young Timorese to go for 3-5 years’ work in South Korea. Research into the experiences of young Timorese workers returning from South Korea found that the income and remittances were only part of the benefits sought by workers. These workers were looking to develop their skills and knowledge to develop their own businesses when they returned to Timor-Leste, particularly in relation to improved agricultural practices. A well run program which supports the workers not only while overseas but also on their return can have substantial benefits for the local economy, and for the goodwill towards the recipient country.

  • I appreciate this article because I was fortunate to work with a couple of farms in New Zealand and farmers have shared the same sentiments that during their peak seasons the existing domestic labour market is not always enough to satisfy their market requirements therefore the RSE program provides a much a very critical relief to an extent by meeting that shortage. As stated delivering on time with premium quality is always an important going concern for farmers for market demands both the export and local. Hence RSE is as critical to the New Zealand economy as it is to nations involved with New Zealand on the program.

    As a Papua New Guinean I would like to see my government proactively pursue and tap into this labour export market at ministerial level with the New Zealand government bilaterally through a similiar quota system like everyone else so we can mutually benefit from this. At this moment New Zealand has the most potential and willingness compared to Australia. Thank you.

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