Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 07:40 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 07:40 | SYDNEY

Answers: Niue and the seasonal workers' scheme


Jenny Hayward-Jones


21 August 2008 09:17

John Hannoush asks a very good question. With a resident population about a quarter the size of most suburbs in Auckland, why has tiny Niue not been incorporated into New Zealand? Although the issue has been discussed, it is clear from Niue’s determination (against all expectations) to host the 2008 Forum and to rebuild after the devastation caused by Cyclone Heta in 2004 that there are just enough Niueans who want to maintain their ties to their land and identity. Commitment to protecting the concept of the sovereign nation state is still strong in the Pacific.

Fergus’ questions on labour mobility highlight the domestic and foreign policy sensitivities of Australia’s dramatic policy shift, some of which have emerged in the Australian media. The Australian government has learned from the New Zealand experience and its own internal consultation process and is exercising exceptional caution to protect itself from criticism.

Leaving such an important new policy to the market, at least in the initial stages of the scheme, carries a few unacceptable risks from the government’s perspective. Workers from Kiribati, Tonga, Vanuatu and PNG might be exploited by some recruitment companies or farmers seeking greater profits from cheaper labour options. Australian employers might abandon existing efforts to employ indigenous Australians in favour of Pacific island workers. The Australian government knows that if even one worker has a bad experience, is underpaid, under-employed or accommodated in poor conditions, Pacific island governments will be quick to convey disappointment to Canberra. The Rudd government, having worked hard to demonstrate it has a much greater understanding of, and respect for, Pacific island concerns, has to minimise the foreign policy risks of any negative outcomes from the new scheme.

The strict criteria set for participation in the scheme suggests that only larger established horticultural enterprises and the most reputable recruitment firms will be able to recruit workers from the Pacific. These are the most likely to be able to afford the cost of airfares and establishment costs for employees and most able to prove they have exhausted local employment options. As up-front costs for employing Pacific island workers will be higher than those for employing Australians, the risks of wage exploitation are theoretically lowered. The strict conditions also enable the government to show that there is still a strong incentive for employers to make every effort to employ Australians first.

While the conditions appear to be over-cautious and even paternalistic, prudence is advisable in this case. But the pilot scheme has yet to be implemented and the practical application of conditions yet to be explained. Reviewing the scheme after six months of implementation will make for more interesting analysis.