‘We have to act’: Pacific worker scheme shift defended

Pacific workers in Australia will get more regular incomes and better conditions under changes that will soon come into effect.

But farmers and the Nationals say the new deed and guidelines for the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme will push up costs, impact grocery prices and drive employers away from hiring.

The changes, which begin in July, include minimum-hours requirements, ensuring pay parity with domestic workers, and greater transparency around accommodation costs and other deductions.

The scheme is becoming increasingly popular, with the number of participants rising from 24,500 in May last year to 38,180 in April.

It is used to provide a pool of workers to fill labour gaps – largely in the agriculture and food-processing sectors – when enough local workers can’t be found.

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke said the changes were about improving workers’ conditions and dealing with exploitation and mistreatment.

He said one worker told him she needed to take food out of bins outside a supermarket in order to make ends meet due to her employment conditions.

“We have to act,” Mr Burke said on Tuesday.

“What we need is something that provides the labour our farms need while making sure, for our Pacific neighbours, that there is a good experience working in Australia.”

The government will also step up its checks on employer non-compliance.

Nationals leader David Littleproud said the changes would push up the cost of groceries.

“Common sense tells you near-impossible new rules and increased costs on our farmers created by Labor will result in increased costs on food for families,” he said.

“It is now becoming even more unattractive for farmers to sign up to the PALM scheme.”

The National Farmers Federation’s horticulture council spokeswoman Rachel Chambers said the scheme was heading towards “calamity”.

“We’ve warned for years against putting all our eggs in the PALM basket, given how challenging it is for small businesses to engage with,” she said.

“Now, instead of making it easier for small business, we have a suite of changes that would effectively lock them out of the PALM.”

Cath Scarth, CEO of migrant service provider AMES Australia, said the organisation broadly supported the changes.

“We support any measures that will afford more protection against the exploitation of migrant workers,” she said.

“It’s a good idea to more formally embed the scheme, with the protocols around the Fair Work Act and the Migration Act and the country liaison officers, so that all participants and stakeholders are aware of their rights and responsibilities.”


Paul Osborne
(Australian Associated Press)


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