The Ultimate Farmer's Guide to the Seasonal Worker Programme (And PALM Scheme)
When labour needs go unmet, it can create a serious issue in any industry. This is especially true in the agriculture industry if, as a farmer, you cannot fill the positions necessary to make sure that your business runs efficiently and can meet the supply demanded of it. That is where the Palm Scheme (Seasonal Worker Programme and Pacific Labour Scheme) aims to help. Below we will give you the critical information you need to see if the program is right for you and get you ready to complete your application.
1. What Are The Different Programs and Acronyms?
There are two programs, the Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme, which come under one program called the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM).
2. What is the PALM scheme?
The PALM scheme is an initiative created by the Australian Government that provides employers with reliable workers from countries in the Pacific Islands and Timor-Leste. The scheme's goal is to assist these employers with the unmet labour demands they face. It is commonly used in horticulture, aquaculture, cane, cotton, and other agriculture industries. Workers can be provided for up to nine months and can be recruited from the countries of:
- Papua New Guinea
- Solomon Islands
3. How Does the Seasonal Worker Programme and Pacific Labour Scheme (PALM Scheme) Help Farmers?
The PALM scheme helps farmers by providing a solution to labour shortages, and also by increasing productivity.
A recent survey by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) found that the productivity of PALM seasonal farm workers was, on average 20 per cent higher than that of backpackers in the horticulture industry.
Anecdotally, PALM employers consistently report that PALM workers are reliable, positive, and hardworking.
4. What is the Difference Between the Seasonal Worker Program and Pacific Labour Scheme?
The main differences are set out below.
Seasonal Worker Programme
- For unskilled and low-skilled workers only.
- Seasonal Worker Programme allows for low-skilled workers to be employed for up to 9 months (but the same workers can return annually for up to 4 years).
- Must provide a minimum average (if averaging is allowed under the industrial instrument) of 30 hours per week.
- Administered by the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE).
Pacific Labour Scheme
- For low and semi-skilled workers.
- Pacific Labour Scheme is for low-skilled or semi-skilled workers for up to four years.
- Must provide full-time or close to full-time work.
- Administered by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
5. Can I Use The Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme?
Yes, you can use both the Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme at the same time.
6. How Much Does it Cost?
There are many upfront costs for employers, many of which may be deducted from seasonal farm workers' pay (however these deductions must be transparent and clearly set out before recruitment).
Direct Costs (Deductible From Seasonal Farm Worker Pay)
Some of the direct and deductible costs include:
- VISA costs
- Return airfares (first $300 not deductible)
- A cash advance on arrival to Australia
- Domestic transport
- Health insurance
- Communication device
Direct Costs (Not Deductible)
- First $300 of airfares
- Temporary Activities Sponsor application with Department of Home Affairs ($420).
- Personal protective equipment.
- Direct costs incurred which cannot be recouped from a terminated (for various reasons) seasonal farm worker.
- PALM administration and compliance (which is significant).
- Your own airfares and travel costs if recruiting in-person.
- Seasonal farm worker orientation and education, which is significant.
- Community integration assistance.
- Welfare and Wellbeing Support Person time and wages.
- Ongoing support and assistance.
7. How do I use the Seasonal Worker Programme and PALM?
Farmers who want farm workers from the Seasonal Worker Programme or Pacific Labour Scheme (or PALM) can:
- Use an approved employer, like Left FIeld, who can manage the recruitment, oversight, legal obligations, and complexities; or
- Apply to become an approved employer themselves.
8. How Do I Become an Approved Employer?
To become an approved employer you must:
- Meet the eligibility requirements.
- Decide on the program.
- Apply to become an approved employer.
- Receive approval (if successful).
- Become An Approved Temporary Activities Sponsor
- Sign a Deed of Agreement.
8.1. Meet the Eligibility Requirements
The eligibility requirements to become an approved PALM scheme employer are that you must:
- Be a business that is not an individual, sole trader or unincorporated company.
- Have good immigration and workplace relations practices and compliance history, including the individual owners of the business.
- Be in a good financial position, including three years of financial solvency.
- Understand the requirements of becoming an approved employer.
8.2. Decide on the program
For the time being, the Seasonal Worker Programme and Pacific Labour Scheme are still administered separately which means you still need to apply for one or the other, or both.
8.3. Apply to Become an Approved Employer
You must apply on the PALM website.
Questions you will need to address in your application include:
- Details about your business and its owners.
- Data about current employees.
- Your last three years of financial statements (uploaded)
- Details of the proposed employment of seasonal farm workers.
- Your organisation's policies and procedures (uploaded).
- How you will support your seasonal farm workers on arrival and ongoing.
- Details of the accommodation you will be arranging.
8.4. Wait To Be Assessed
It will take six to eight weeks for your application to be assessed.
8.5. Become An Approved Temporary Activities Sponsor
If your application is successful, you must become a temporary activities sponsor (TAS) through the Department of Home Affairs.
The application is to sponsor an applicant for a Temporary Work (International Relations) visa (subclass 403) under the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme.
To apply you first need to create an Immi account with the Department of Home Affairs.
The application can then be made by selecting "New application" in your Immi account, the "Temporary Work (Activity)", then "Temporary Work (International Relations) Visa".
8.6. Sign a Deed of Agreement
If your temporary activities sponsor application is successful you can then finalise yourself as an approved employer by executing a Deed of Agreement with the DESE (for the Seasonal Worker Programme) and/or a Deed of Agreement with the DFAT (for the Pacific Labour Scheme).
9. What Are The Responsibilities of an Approved Employer?
The responsibilities of an approved employer are outlined in the Deed signed in the final stage of becoming an approved employer.
The (very) broad responsibilities include:
- To liaise with and notify DESE or DFAT (depending on the program) when certain events and incidents occur.
- Provide reports to DESE or DFAT at specific times including on arrival and departure.
- Work Health and Safety responsibilities.
- Provide personal protective equipment.
- Provision of on-site facilities.
- Ensure seasonal farm workers have clothing suitable for Australian conditions.
- Obtain written approvals for changes in work duties, locations, and conditions.
- Provide (at cost); safe and secure accommodation for the seasonal farm workers that is fit for live in and reasonably priced (if workers do not arrange their own accommodation).
- Provide (at cost); appropriate, affordable, safe transport (if workers do not arrange their own transport).
- Offer a cash advance to workers on arrival to cover reasonable initial living expenses.
- Ensure seasonal farm workers (who drive) have a license, know the road rules, and can drive on Australian roads safely.
- Arrange and advise seasonal farm workers on private health insurance.
- Ensure seasonal farm workers understand Australian medical, health care, and emergency systems, and how and when to access these.
- Provide welfare and wellbeing support to the seasonal farm workers.
- Allocate a suitable Welfare and Wellbeing Support Person (within 300kms) of each seasonal farm worker.
- Provide seasonal farm workers with a means to communicate with their families at home.
- Provide seasonal farm workers education on fire safety, drowning (and other community risks).
- Education on drugs and alcohol in the workplace, and the consequences to them if this were to occur.
- Ensure in-person minuted meetings occur at least fortnightly.
- Provide a 24x7 emergency contact number.
- Employ seasonal farm workers under the same conditions as Australian workers, under a Fair Work Instrument.
- Assist with (including financially) visa applications.
- Help workers comply with their visa obligations
- Arrange and pay for the full costs of return international airfares.
- Provide pre-departure briefing materials.
- Conduct an arrival briefing.
- Provide a workplace induction for seasonal farm workers.
- Assist with banking, taxation and superannuation initiation.
- Ensure your seasonal farm workers have enough ongoing funds to meet costs of living.
- Support your seasonal farm workers to engage in community activities such as sports or religious observance.
- Advise seasonal workers on their residual arrangements including mail, bank accounts, tax, superannuation, health insurance, unpaid fines, work gear, phone, SIM, and visa obligations before departure from Australia.
- Assist with departure from Australia.
10. What Are The Steps to Recruit?
Once approved, the following steps must be followed to recruit workers under the Seasonal Worker Programme and Pacific Labour Scheme.
- "Labour Market Testing".
- Submit a "Recruitment Plan".
- Recruit suitable workers.
- Visa approval.
- Provide an Offer of Employment.
10.1. Labour Market Testing
In order to recruit, employers must first advertise the job in Australia and demonstrate that they are unable to find suitable candidates in the local workforce. Only after this has occurred can an employer proceed to submit a recruitment plan. There are certain requirements when performing Labour Market Testing (advertising) which need to be adhered to.
Labour Market Testing is not a once-off activity and must be performed each time you recruit.
10.2. Submit a Recruitment Plan
After Labour Market Testing, a Recruitment Plan must be submitted to the PALM scheme for recruitment approval.
The recruitment plan is a form provided by PALM which requires you to provide:
- Details and results of the Labour Market Testing (advertising).
- How many farm workers.
- What roles the farm workers will be doing.
- How many males and females.
- What countries you intend to recruit farm workers from.
- How long you will recruit the farm workers for.
- Where the farm workers will be placed.
- How you will meet your Workplace Health and Safety Obligations.
- What your contingency plans are if you cannot provide the required hours to the farm workers.
Along with the Recruitment Plan, you must also submit:
- copies of the Labour Market Testing advertisements;
- proposed Offer of Employment;
- Welfare and Wellbeing Plan; and
- an Accommodation Plan.
The Welfare and Wellbeing Plan and Accommodation Plan templates can be found on SWP Online, which is an online portal for approved employers.
The application will be assessed within 10 days.
10.3. Recruit Suitable Workers
If the Recruitment Plan application is successful, you are able to recruit seasonal farm workers.
The farm workers who come to Australia under the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) are first selected and vetted by a "Labour Sending Unit" in their home country. These units are a Government department in each country, which means they differ between countries, and whilst there is a working partnership with each country, Labour Sending Units are not under the control of the Australian Government.
Each Labour Sending Unit has a "work-ready pool" of people that facilitate the recruitment process, including interviews and any other screening. If you recruit outside of the pool, you must work with the Labour Sending Unit to add the workers to the pool (i.e. you must go through the Labour Sending Unit).
Employers can conduct screening and selection by flying to the country or screening and selecting farm workers from Australia (for example, interviewing through Skype).
10.4. Visa Approval
The Labour Sending Unit will confirm the eligibility of the worker with the Department of Home Affairs for the PALM stream visa.
10.5. Provide an Offer of Employment
Once you have selected your farm workers, and eligibility is confirmed, you must provide the farm workers with an individual Offer of Employment.
The Offer of Employment must clearly contain certain items including:
- The worker’s pay rate and conditions.
- The instrument (Award or Agreement) the worker will be employed under.
- The commencement date and length of the employment.
- Worker’s employment type.
- Minimum hours (at least 30 per week).
- Notice that employment is subject to a successful visa application.
- The location and contact details of their workplace.
- Information about welfare and well-being that will be provided.
- Specific information about on-arrival cash advance (not less than $150).
- Specific and exhaustive information about any deductions.
- Details of flight arrangements including the proposed date of travel and port of arrival.
- Details of domestic transfer arrangements.
- Details of the worker's compulsory health insurance (including coverage).
- Details of the workers' accommodation arrangements.
- Community contacts and opportunities for recreation and religious activities.
A copy of the Fair Work Information Statement must be sent with all Offers of
The Offer of Employment is sent to the Australian PALM mobilisation team who send it to, and liaise with, the relevant Labour Sending Unit.
An official PALM Offer of Employment template can be found on the PALM Scheme website.
11. Is There a Cap on the Number of Workers I Recruit?
Yes, for newly approved employers there will be a recruitment cap usually based on the size of the existing workforce. The cap can be removed after four months if your performance after the first 4 months.
Recruitment caps can be reimposed if DESE or DFAT (depending on the program) have concerns about your performance.
12. What if I Fail to Provide the Required Hours?
First of all, in your Recruitment Plan, you needed to outline your contingency plan if you are unable to provide the required hours.
If the contingency plan fails or wasn't appropriate to begin with, then you may be able to transfer workers to another approved employer with the assistance of DESE or DFAT (depending on the program). However, this will not be looked on favourably and should be a last resort.
13. What Out of Work Behaviour Should I Expect?
It's important to recognise that PALM seasonal farm workers come from environments with very low wages, and not as many entertainment opportunities.
They are generally also young, and maturity is not always different to a young person in Australia.
An analogy for this could be if you sent some young Australians to Las Vegas alone, with 10x their Australian wage.
Understandably, out of hours, some workers may not always behave in a way that you might consider responsible.
It is therefore important to understand this and provide a lot of education, support, and systems to help PALM seasonal farm workers stay safe and out of trouble.
14. What if a Seasonal Farm Worker Gets Into Legal Trouble?
As an approved employer, it is your responsibility to support the seasonal farm worker if they get into legal trouble.
15. Can I Terminate Employment?
Yes, but you should work with the DESE or DFAT (depending on the program), as well as follow Australian workplace relations laws and practices.
If you terminate employment, you will not be able to recover deductable direct costs which are yet to be recovered.
The PALM scheme is an initiative created by the Australian Government that provides employers with reliable workers from countries in the Pacific Islands and Timor-Leste.
The PALM scheme, which includes the Seasonal Worker Programme and Pacific Labour Scheme, helps farmers by providing a solution to labour shortages, and also by increasing productivity.
The program has many complexities if employment is direct with the farm but can be worth it to secure the reliable workers needed for farm operations.