This financial year Australia is offering 3,250 places for seasonal workers.
Experts say a crackdown on illegal workers would create demand from farmers for an additional 10,000 Pacific workers.
Reporter: Jemima Garrett
Speaker: Sarah McKinnon, manager workplace relations and legal affairs for National Farmers Federation; Rochelle Ball, labour mobility expert; Rochelle Bailey, Research fellow with State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program at Australian National University
GARRETT: Australia's seasonal work program was slow to get off the ground compared to the New Zealand scheme, but since it became permanent in 2012 it has been making steady progress.
The National Farmers Federation's workplace relations manager, Sarah McKinnon, says places in the program could be increased.
McKINNON: In countries where really their whole economy has been devastated, here is an opportunity to come to Australia for a period while things recover at home, to earn good money to bring back home and invest in local communities. So I think it can make a huge difference.
GARRETT: Australia has been slowly increasing the number of visas it offers to seasonal workers. It has 3,250 on offer this year and more than 4,000 next year.
Rochelle Ball is a labour mobility specialist with experience in industry, government and academe in Asia, as well as Australia. She told a seminar at the Australian National University this week that Australia could offer many more places to Pacific islanders.
BALL: I think there is enormous potential for the Australian labour market to absorb tens of thousands of Pacific islanders and I don't mean this as an irresponsible comment. If there are 40,000 to 70,000 illegal workers, plus we have a rapidly aging farm sector, and the demographic drivers of our aging farm population is not going to go away. So I believe this is an opportunity for Pacific regional integration and building strong transnational relations between Australia and the Pacific that can go on for many decades to come.
GARRETT: Pacific workers take months to hire and get paid the Australian award wage of around $18 an hour, a lot more than the $5 or $6 an illegal worker might get.
Rochelle Ball says Pacific workers also face competition from backpackers.
BALL: It is easier to go down to the pub and get 20 workers when you need them. The problem is with backpackers is their reliability and farmers complain that it takes a lot of time to skill up a backpacker and then they do half a day and think its all a bit too hard and go to the cafe and don't come back.
GARRETT: The Farmers Federation says Pacific seasonal workers are good value and more needs to be done to keep employers informed.
McKINNON: I do think there is more work to be done in promoting the program more in Australia. I think you know, the benefits from the productivity point of view are clear for those people who have taken the time to invest in the seasonal worker program. One instance showed that for the same output over a 5 year period the employer was able to halve their labour cost, so that is significant.
GARRETT: The Farmer's Federation wants to see the seasonal workers program expanded beyond horticulture.
McKINNON: What I would like to see is a broadening of the seasonal work program to cover all the industries in the agriculture sector. At the moment it only covers 4 of the industry sectors. I think if you opened it up to all industries within agriculture in Australia you would get better uptake and better outcome.
GARRETT: Australian National University research fellow Rochelle Bailey agrees with Rochelle Ball that Australia has the potential to offer many thousands of additional places to Pacific workers. She told the ANU seminar extra places would make a massive difference to communities hit by natural disasters, including those in Kiribati, Tuvalu, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, affected by Cyclone Pam.
BAILEY: I have been talking to recruiters and colleagues in Vanuatu at the moment who've said there is a high demand of ni-Vanuatu wanting to come to Australia and New Zealand, people who have never expressed any interest at all in the seasonal schemes are wanting to come here and earn money so they can go home and rebuild their communities.
GARRETT: How fast does the government need to move to make the most of this opportunity?
BAILEY: Well because it is going to be long term if they could move within the next 2 or 3 months that would be great, but at least moving within the next 7 months, if they could make some more visas available and just get things started there.
GARRETT: With 9 countries participating, the seasonal work program is complex.
Rochelle Ball says that does not mean it can't be responsive.
BALL: Cyclone Pam has only happened recently. We only have 170 ni-Vanuatu working in Australia at the moment. The Australian government could move fast but it is also about working with employers so that employers know there are more visas available so they feel secure in actually employing more workers.
GARRETT: What is your message to Australia's foreign minister Julie Bishop, to the employment minister Eric Abetz, and also the immigration minister?
BALL: I guess for the immigration minister, and this is also for Minister Abetz, the importance of illegal labour compliance. Australia is founded on 'a fair go' and illegal labour supply is not predicated on 'a fair go'. By increased compliance, that would provide Pacific Islanders with 'a fair go', increased industry productivity and potentially increased access of Australian producers to a greater breadth of international markets for their produce. And for minister Bishop I know this seasonal worker scheme is something she is strongly behind and I guess I would encourage her to encourage her cabinet colleagues to quickly increase the number of visas available.