The Seasonal Worker Program: who is coming to Australia?

Barossa Valley winery pathway (Flickr/Jocelyn Kinghorn CC BY NC 2.0)

The Seasonal Worker Program (SWP) saw near 50 per cent growth in 2015-16, demonstrating the program is maturing since its formalisation in 2012 and carving out an important space within Australia’s broader migration framework. Now thanks to the Department of Employment and Department of Immigration and Border Protection, up-to-date visa data can shed light on who exactly is coming to Australia under the program.

Table 1 shows where SWP participants are coming from. Since the formalisation of the SWP in 2012, Tonga has provided more than half of all seasonal migrants every year. However its share is gradually abating, with Vanuatu growing more quickly than Tonga. These two countries account for the vast majority of all participants. Timor-Leste is another source of growth, albeit off a very low starting point.

Table 1: Seasonal Worker Program, Country of origin, 2012-13 to 2015-16

Table 1: Seasonal Worker Program, Country of origin, 2012-13 to 2015-16

Unfortunately, countries without a tradition of emigration and those lacking a strong diaspora struggle to engage in the SWP. Both Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands continue to have difficulty in facilitating opportunities for their citizens to work in Australia under the SWP. With poor in-country bureaucratic processes to support employer recruitment and a lack of strong networks, it is likely these countries will continue to fail unless outreach and capacity are prioritised.

Inducing additional private sector involvement by allowing direct employer recruitment would help improve participation. Vanuatu, another country without a tradition of emigration, has managed to overcome this substantial barrier by investing in support, inducing the private sector through recruitment agents and building strong networks through the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) program in New Zealand. While Vanuatu also had a major ‘first mover advantage’ by participating from the start in the RSE, this does not explain why a country like Timor-Leste can continue to grow their participation in the SWP while Papua New Guinea cannot.

Table 2 shows males continue to account for a large majority of participants in the Seasonal Worker Program. The good news is female participation grew slightly faster than males in 2015-16, 54 per cent compared to 39 per cent.

Table 2: Seasonal Worker Program, Gender, 2012-16

Table 2: Seasonal Worker Program, Gender, 2012-16

This may reflect eligibility changes, allowing tourism employers to use the SWP. While the data does not separate out into industries and the SWP numbers for tourism are small compared to horticulture, tourism offers the best possibility to overcome a stubborn gender gap for Pacific labour mobility. With women making up over 80 per cent of the first small group of i-Kiribati microstate visa holders, there are labour market opportunities to support higher female participation.

The figures in Table 3 show how the SWP is beginning to see the dividends of returning workers, with ‘returned workers’ making up 46 per cent of participants in 2015-16.

Table 3: Seasonal Worker Program, Returning migrants, 2012-16

Table 3: Seasonal Worker Program, Returning migrants, 2012-16

(Note: July 2009 to June 2012 was a pilot period, with the formal SWP commencing on 1 July 2012)

Having returning workers is one of the major benefits for employers of any seasonal migration program. Such a worker allows an upfront cost, such as recruitment and training, to be smoothed over more than one year. For tourism employers, workers will become more efficient based on an hourly wage while horticultural employers, despite the widespread use of piece-rates, will see indirect productivity benefits such as a reduction in crop waste and spoilage. In addition, return workers can also act as key linkages for employers into broader networks for future recruitment.

One government research paper on the New Zealand RSE program in 2012 found “The policy is found to have provided employers in the horticulture and viticulture industries with access to a reliable and stable workforce, with productivity gains starting to emerge as workers return for repeat seasons.” The paper also found “almost 50 per cent of first-time seasonal workers return in the next season and most (86.9 per cent) return to the same employer.”

There is also evidence return workers are able to earn greater incomes at their destinations. For example, Charlotte Bedford shows the 12 week average wage for returning seasonal workers in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand was approximately 10 per cent higher than new seasonal workers in 2011. Gibson and McKenzie speculate participants who return may see “positive effects such as greater asset building, investments, and skill development”.

These visa grant figures shine a light on who is coming to Australia under the Seasonal Worker Program. This data provides some cautious optimism the SWP is tracking in the right direction as a tool for improving gender outcomes in Pacific labour mobility and maximising the productivity for both employers and workers by fostering return migration. The data also point to which countries need to do more to capture the benefits of labour mobility for development.

Henry Sherrell is a Research Officer at the Development Policy Centre.

Note: there are some small discrepancies between the figures used in this blog (visa grants) and figures used previously (employment approvals).

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Henry Sherrell

Henry Sherrell is an independent migration researcher, with a background in Australian public policy. He has worked for the then Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the Federal Parliamentary Library, a Federal Member of Parliament, the Migration Council Australia, and the Development Policy Centre. His research focuses on Australian visa policy and how migration intersects with other public policy domains, such as higher education and population.


  • Hi everyone,
    Happy new year, 2018. I am originally from Timor Leste, residing in countryside . I was wondering, to whom I may direct my questions regarding creating an SWP agency here in my countryside Aileu Remexio . I will be grateful for a guide. Tnks in advance, Samson.

  • I am in support of the Seasonal Worker Program that in general benefited a lot of Solomon Islanders. Our development organization, the Rinaoli Perpetual Development Association really wanted to be an Agency in Solomon Islands. We have tried out organic farming by setting up demonstration farms and then each farmer applying the techniques in their own farms. We concentrated mainly with yams and taro organic farms. We have identified capable farmers that are able to join the SWP but we need to link with farmers in Australia and this is the advice from Jack Waneoroa, an officer in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and External Trade.
    Hence we are now appealing to the Australian Farmers so that we can link up with, to send our capable and disciplined farmers. We will meet all required costs to come to Australia, such as, visa, air ticket, medical check etc.
    Please email to us using the email; Cheers, Patrick Taloboe

  • Hi everyone,
    Happy new year, 2018. I am originally from Vanuatu, residing in New Caledonia. I was wondering, to whom I may direct my questions regarding creating an SWP agency here in New Caledonia. I will be grateful for a guide. Tnks in advance, Samson.

  • Avery good points and agendas being discussed .My name is John Ezekiel currently studying in Divine Word University studying PNG studies and International Relations.I come from the remote highlands part of PNG and after reading this site , i would like to give a bit background of how we live in daily struggle basis. My place is a mountainous districts where 99% of the total population of 54 thousands are subsistence farmers.We do shifting cultivation and our stable food is sweet potatoes and pig is a major source of protein.
    Many students progress but due to school fees problems they were left home practicing illegal activities and staying nothing with no hope.They have the full potential to apply but there is no opportunity to grab.GOVERNMENT DID NOT TAKE US INTO ACCOUNT AND WE ARE STILL SUFFERING.
    i wonder if there is a door for such young boys and girls to go to Australia and do seasonal work and return.
    For more information or arrangement, call or email on my ph: 67570723337 or
    so that we can help those unfortunate ones .

  • Hi everyone, it gives me pleasure to leave a comment especially for SWP in PNG. I am a Development Consultant and have been vocal in promoting and improving technologies used in horticulture in Papua New Guinea rural communities. I have over the years helped set up Farming Associations, Women and Youth Associations to access financial assistance from the Local Level Government and Donor Aid such as Australian Aid through Programs such as the Strongim Pipol Strongim Nesen SPSN, basically to improve farming techniques to enhance a good harvest. This organised associations need exposure so that to learn from farming in Australia as well as providing an opportunity for the those farmers to earn Australian wage so that to support their Association and profoundly to improve their living standard in those rural setting. Such initiative needs to be embraced and promoted so that it is sustainable and has a ripple effect to the general rural populace in Papua New Guinea. I wish to extend invitation for comments or advise towards this worthy cause. Thank you, Frank Kagl, Nuigini Pine Consultancy. ( NEWLY ESTABLISHED PROVINCE ) Jiwaka Province Papua New Guinea.

  • Vanuatu made the decision early on to let the “Private Sector” do the recruitment and for the “Employment Services Unit” under the Department of Labour to regulate by Licencing. This concious decision by Hon. Ham Lini was to keep “Politics” at arms length from who was being recruited. I think this has been the critical difference between Vanuatu and PNG and Solomon Islands. The other critical factor is the person of “Lionel Kaluat” who has stuck with the program from day 1. He works hard, provides good leadership and is a good public servant who is the single champion for labour mobility in Vanuatu. I have seen workers coming back with anywhere from 300,000 vatu to 1.5 million vatu in savings after 6 months. The median savings is 600,000 vatu. I have 225 people in Australia at the moment. 20 are female. Yesterday Lionel Kaluat handed out 28 licenses to recruit for Australia and 9 Licensed for NZ. We compete to find farms in Aus and NZ to place workers. We inmovate in Vanuatu to find the funds for birth certificates, passports, police clearances, medical checks, visa costs, airfares, establishment costs and the nomal screening, selection and training costs.

  • Papua New Guineans face great difficulties if they wish to participate in the Seasonal Worker Program. The information provided by DFAT lists an agent based in Port Moresby and also lists his phone numbers and email addresses. If a person who wants to participate in the scheme can get him to respond to their inquiries they then must obtain a passport . Before they can get a passport they must get a birth certificate. These things can only be obtained in Port Moresby and only by paying money. If they live in Southern Highlands or East Sepik, they face an expensive air fare to get to Port Moresby and then the costs associated with the passport and living in Port Moresby while they wait for these documents to be produced..

    But they are unlikely to get a response from DFAT’s agent. I have twice tried to help men who I thought would make excellent seasonal workers: mature, good horticulturalists, hard workers; good speakers of English; and very keen to learn about new ways of growing and selling vegetables and fruit from their Australian experience. One lived near Tari, the other near Maprik. I emailed and phoned the person listed by DFAT numerous times on behalf of these men but have never received a response. When I asked DFAT what to do, I was referred back to the agent.

    I can’t know for sure, but it is possible that DFAT paying someone to do a job that they are not doing is the problem here.

    • Thank you for this comment Bryant. The factors you highlight show it can be more difficult for rural people than those living in urban environments to overcome barriers to participation. This can add substantial costs to the program. This can be very difficult as often employers in Australia talk about wanting to hire people from non-urban areas as the perception is they will be more productive given many have existing horticultural skills.

    • Your opening sentence is correct: ‘Papua New Guineans face great difficulties if they wish to participate in the Seasonal Worker Program’. The Seasonal Worker Coordination Office operates with very few resources. However, DFAT does not have anything to do with the operational aspects of the seasonal worker program in PNG or in Australia. PNG does not permit agents to recruit for a fee. The PNG contact listed by the Australian Department of Employment is: David L Haro, Manager, National Employment Services, Department of Labour & industrial Relations, Phone Number: +675 325 2022, 325 0414 (switch), Direct line: +675 325 4593, Email Address: There is a website that can be used to lodge applications.

      I did a review for the ILO of PNG Department of Labour’s National Employment Services Division in October last year. The Seasonal Worker Coordination Office is part of that Division. Those who want to do seasonal work apply to the Seasonal Worker Coordination Office over the counter, by email or by mail. Applications are screened and processed by four regional officers of the Department of Labour and Industrial Relations and sent to the Coordinator. If the application is complete, it is entered into the Work Ready Pool database.

      The selection of seasonal workers is done from the Work Ready Pool. With a request from an employer, the Office staff screen and process the applications in terms of the employers’ specifications in terms of height and weight, age and other attributes the employer may request such as a driver’s licence or relevant work experience.

      Recruiters are not permitted to recruit workers for employers for a fee. The The PNG Government retains the sole right to select workers for employers who have the final choice. It is the responsibility of the Office to advertise how to apply for the Work Ready Pool. This is done in the major towns, Port Moresby, Lae and Rabaul and some provincial towns such as Popondetta and Mt Hagen. This advertising is done by radio and segments on TV. One valuable form of publicity is to get the media to interview workers when they return from working in Australia and New Zealand. Applicants for the Work Ready Pool, according to the website ‘must be from rural areas ie districts and communities’.

      Compared with recent efforts by Fiji, PNG does little or nothing to encourage recruitment from rural areas apart from the above – this is the subject of a blog we are posting this week. Bryant, hope this helps.

      • Thanks Richard for the facts. There is one critical missing information in this discussions. How much effort and funding is invested in employers in the receiving countries. Example DFAT Australia does not communicate with employers directly. All funds and effort is spent in LSU countries and employers are expected to recruit thousands that are in work ready pools. There are less then one hundred businesses approved to recruit for SWP and half of those are labour hire companies in Australia

        This is an Aid program as identified however there massive red tape in the proecedures for a farmer to become approved employer. It litterally takes 12 months for a farmer to be approved in Australia. DFAT needs to be aware of the time the cost and the stress the farm owners go through to make SWP work, no point having thousands of workers in the pacific availabe when there is limited places in the recieving countries.

    • Hi Caroline. I’m not aware of any Australia data on what happens with the workers income and impact in their home countries however there is good data from a number of studies about what happens when workers remit income as temporary seasonal workers. I would recommend John Gibson and David McKenzie’s work. Here is a World Bank paper on the topic.

      Cheers, Henry

    • Caroline you have a very valid question. one that needs to be answered. not by bureaucrats or so called stats. People who are in the areas that pick up the pieces of the seasonal workers, they know. The workers have been lied to, work in slave like conditions, are told who they can talk to, where than go, local people aren’t allowed to enter living places. one set of bed linen for their stay. Henry Sherrell ” here is the world bank paper” yes tell us the total amount in fees they the seasonal workers are charged to send money back to their country? let us remember the facts Quote the seasonal worker will be treated & have all the same privileges as the Australian worker. the first untruth & the list will be endless. Truth the seasonal worker would not have one idea of the privileges the Australian workers have. Truth are these workers not FIFO workers. Truth are majority of workers on piece work rates, Yes, does workers understand piece work to casual rates of pay, to permanent rates of pay, does the worker know that a work agreement needs to be signed & approved each time they do different work on a farm, No.

  • I take your point Henry but I disagree that the sort of research I have identified can be left on the back burner while we focus on getting Solomon Islands & PNG better integrated. It needs to be happening now so that the findings can be factored in to any scaling up that is envisaged or planned.

  • This is a very clear presentation of some important data on this issue. This whole discussion remains lacking in information about how these migration schemes are perceived in labour-sending countries. There is a growing and multi-layered discourse in the region around whether countries should participate, who should have the opportunities (with particular reference to female participation and the rural/urban divide) and (increasingly) the negative effects whether cultural, social or economic. All of this needs to feed into how these schemes are further developed, marketed and assessed if it is to be part of the longer term future for Pacific development

    • Thanks for the comment Tess. I agree there needs to be a broader discussion on these programs and as you note, the impact of emigration can be significant, meaning it should be assessed alongside any effects from immigration. However before we get to the longer term future of labour mobility for Pacific development, I think there needs to be more focus on those countries struggling to participate in the present. Tonga and Vanuatu have effectively gained access to both the RSE and SWP however other countries have struggled mightily. It’s hard to discuss further development, marketing and assessment of the SWP if the numbers from countries with larger populations like PNG and the Solomons are in the tens instead of hundreds or thousands. While there is an argument all of this should be addressed concurrently, there are clearly capacity issues and resource constraints for migration and foreign policy development on an issue as “niche” as Pacific labour mobility. Cheers, Henry

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