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Timorese workers in Australia making the most of a great opportunity

Photo: Timorese workers in Melbourne on their way to work on a strawberry farm Photo: Timorese workers in Melbourne on their way to work on a strawberry farm (photo credit: Embassy of Timor-Leste)

Life in Australia’s Seasonal Worker Program (SWP) can be tough, but it is designed to prevent the exploitation of workers within it.

In the past three years over 1500 people from Timor-Leste have worked in Australia as part of the (SWP), mostly picking or packing fruit on Australian farms.

Timorese participation in the program has been growing each year since 2012 and will likely continue to do so. Timorese have proved great workers and agricultural communities in Australia have embraced them. Australian earnings are being used to build new houses, to educate children and siblings and look after elderly parents. Having access to money earned abroad strengthens family networks and gives bright young people access to experiences and options which they would not otherwise have.

Each year more and more Australian farmers and labour hire companies seek to become ‘approved employers’ in the program. This year around 10,000 Timorese tried out to join as workers, although a much smaller number passed the fitness test. At least judging by its rapid growth and the number of people who want to participate in it the program is a success.

The SWP is, of course, far from perfect. Over the past six months the experiences of people within it have been the main focus of my work as a research fellow at the Australian National University, and I’ve listened to dozens if not hundreds of stories about it. Some workers find that their expenses are higher than they had hoped and their earnings less. Others have told me about trying living and working conditions, especially during the height of summer and winter. Just about everyone misses their family. But despite how difficult work within the SWP can sometimes be almost everyone I’ve spoken to agrees that the it is a positive thing for Timor-Leste. I think one of the reasons so many people have been so eager to talk to me about their experiences is that they hope the program can continue to improve and benefit as many people as possible.

In thinking about the SWP it is important to understand what it is and what it is not. It is enormously important to the livelihood of thousands of Timorese. Although imperfect, it is not systemically exploitative.

Timorese workers in Australia receive the same pay and conditions as Australian workers.

The Australian Government takes this seriously and has created a series of videos in Tetun (along with 24 other languages) to make sure that Timorese workers understand that in Australia they have exactly the same rights as everyone else. 



If Timorese workers are denied their rights, it is because their employer is breaking the law.

This issue is taken seriously in Australia, although arguably labour market regulations still need to be enforced better. Employers who are unable to provide Timorese employees with conditions required by law are removed from the SWP and/or fined, and can go out of business. While there have certainly been some very unfortunate situations where employers have been in breach of the rules, this is not the same as systemic ‘exploitation’.

One area that has caused confusion is the issue of ‘piece rates’ and ‘hourly rates’. 

‘Piece rates’ are when someone gets paid according to how much work they do. In the SWP this usually means being paid by the amount of fruit they pick.

‘Hourly rates’ are where someone gets paid by the hour. The minimum hourly rate in Australia for the agricultural sector is $19.49 Australian Dollars.

According to the ‘Seasonal Worker Program Deed’ (the document that sets out the rules that all employers must abide by) employers must stipulate whether or not Timorese employees will receive piece rates or hourly rates in the ‘letter of offer’ they make to each employee before they come to Australia. Although hourly rates are more secure, workers can earn more on piece rates- if they are accustomed to the work and there is plenty of fruit to pick.


However, whether working for ‘piece rates’ or ‘hourly rates’ the SWP is specifically designed to ensure that workers come out ahead from their time in Australia.

The Deed (see Schedule 1, Section D, part c (i), page 38), clearly states that ‘if employed on an hourly wage or Piece Rate, Seasonal Workers are employed for a minimum average of 30 hours work per week’ for the duration of their employment. On the same page it also stipulates that employers must be able to demonstrate that ‘Seasonal Workers will gain a reasonable Net Financial Benefit during their stay’.

So, while SWP workers could make more money in a good year when there is lots of fruit (like any farmer) they are guaranteed not to make a loss.

This is not an exploitative system. 

Whether it always works that way is another issue. Unconfirmed reports, such as the one that appeared earlier this week in Tempo Timor of a worker who was left with only $20 at the end of the week, must be taken seriously, as it suggests an employer who was in breach of the law and should not be part of the SWP. However, though concerning, it should not taken as representative of the experience of most people within the program.

Another difficulty that some workers have reported is with accommodation. According to the Deed (11.5 (a), page 42) all employers are required to provide their workers with ‘accommodation that is safe and secure and is fit for occupation’. Compliance with this is vetted by the the Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business.

Generally speaking workers are charged about $150 Australian dollars per week. This is a shock to many Timorese workers at first, but a fairly small amount by Australian standards. While most seem happy with their living conditions, there are stories of people stuck sharing small rooms and non-functional air-conditioners or heaters.

Workers are not being housed in unsafe conditions as a matter of policy (as unfortunately happens in other parts of the world) but the system is not yet working as well as it could.

Life and work in Australia isn’t perfect, and in the past the country has had issues with agricultural workers (including many indigenous workers and people from the Southwest Pacific) being exploited. The SWP is designed to avoid these type of situations arising again. Many Timorese workers and Australian farm owners are relying on this program. Anyone with an interest in seeing it succeed needs to listen to what they have to say.

Dr Michael Rose is an anthropologist and research fellow based at the Australian National University’s Development Policy Centre. His research is looking at Timorese perspectives on and experiences of work in Australia.


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Last modified on Wednesday, 18 December 2019 12:10
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