Ready access to backpackers keen to extend their holiday and a failure to curb the use of illegal labour are to blame for the limited uptake of a Government scheme to encourage farmers to hire Pacific Islanders, a World Bank report has found.
The nationwide survey of horticulturalists and industry bodies revealed the Seasonal Worker Program (SWP), championed by Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, was failing to meet its objectives.
Half of those surveyed did not know about the scheme, while among those who did, the key reasons cited for not embracing it were a ready access to backpackers seeking an extension to their working holiday visa and the continued prevalence of illegal foreign workers.
The World Bank report found the ready availability of backpacker labour "undermined" demand for Pacific seasonal workers.
The bank's director for the Pacific Islands, PNG & Timor Leste, Franz Drees-Gross, said the findings were telling.
"It's an eye-opener for us to find those things," he said.
Mr Drees-Gross said he thought authorities would be aware of the issues, but said they needed to be addressed if the program was to work effectively.
The report recommended the Government scrap or scale back visa extensions for backpackers who work on farms, and spend more money monitoring illegals.
He said Australia had a "hugely important" role to play in the Pacific.
"We're keen to see Australia look at these findings," he said.
"To make more slots available, that would be a huge contribution to Pacific development."
Ms Bishop said the SWP program "works very well" but conceded it could be improved.
"There is more that we can do to expand it and ensure that the quotas are filled," she said.
"Remittances through the program is an important part of the GDP of some Pacific nations, and Australia plays its part."
Visa change drives up backpacker numbers seeking work
Since the SWP's inception as a pilot scheme in 2009, on average only 65 per cent of the available places had been filled, according to figures from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
In 2012/13, farmers sponsored 1,473 workers out of a possible 2,000, while last financial year just over 2,000 Islanders arrived, 80 per cent of the 2,500 limit.
The report noted that a similar scheme in New Zealand saw 8,000 Islanders employed there each year.
Following a 2005 change to the working holiday visa, which allowed backpackers who work for three months in a rural area to stay in Australia for a second year, the number of people taking up the extension had ballooned.
In the 2005/06 financial year, 2,692 applied, but that number grew to 45,950 in 2013/14, according to departmental statistics.
Queensland citrus grower Sue Jenkin, an enthusiastic backer of the SWP said it was "unfortunate" the visa-extension program had cruelled demand.
"It's very easy to employ a backpacker who shows up at your door ... it's not such a commitment and it's sometimes very easy for farmers to go down that track," she said.
Among those surveyed, 85 per cent of growers recognised that undocumented workers were still used to at least some extent in the horticulture industry.
'People want to save money where they can'
Grant Owen, who runs a labour hire company which employs Pacific Island workers under the SWP, said that use of illegal labour remained "rife" in the industry.
"It's hard to combat because people want to save money where they can," he said.
Mr Owen said he was routinely approached by would-be workers who wanted to be paid in cash.
If something's just a tiny bit more expensive, then it's a disincentive to people.
Citrus grower Sue Jenkin
Ms Jenkin agreed that illegal workers "absolutely" remained an issue.
"We certainly do have contractors offering cheap workers to us," she said.
But she said that although they cost more, Pacific Islander workers were in fact "much more productive" in the long run.
"The first year is hard, you've got to teach people everything, but the second year they get off the bus ... and they go to work the next day," she said.
"We have a 75-80 per cent return rate ... it's just phenomenally better from the point of view of an employer."
Industry opposed to visa changes
Ms Jenkin acknowledged however that any moves to curtail the availability of backpacker labour would not be popular among fellow farmers.
"I do think its a problem," she said.
"If something's just a tiny bit more expensive, then its a disincentive to people."
Ms Jenkin also thought the Government did not want to actively promote the scheme for fear of being seen to favour foreigners.
"I think [the Government's] committed to promoting the program but its also very aware of the concern in the community of appearing to promote the use of foreign workers," she said.
"They're very afraid that it looks like they're promoting foreign workers.
The majority of industry bodies surveyed by the report said they would actively oppose any reform to the second-year visa extension for backpackers.
In 2013, the tourism industry attempted to join those qualifying for "specified work" under the visa's list of jobs that would earn people an extra year, but the horticultural industry lobbied strongly against it, ultimately preventing its inclusion.