Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 03:37 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 03:37 | SYDNEY

Revisiting seasonal labour for Pacific Islanders


Jenny Hayward-Jones


20 June 2008 15:30

Labour mobility presents complex policy considerations and implications for Australia, but for Pacific Islanders with few opportunities to earn cash income at home, and for Australian growers needing labour to get their produce to market, the arguments for it seem relatively obvious.

A conference on labour mobility hosted by the Lowy Institute on 12 and 13 June revealed enthusiastic endorsement from horticultural producers for the introduction of a pilot program to enable Pacific Islanders to be employed on a seasonal basis to meet labour shortages. But it also reflected the complexity of labour mobility for policy-makers and industry. This was also evident in audience comments on SBS’s Insight program, Labour Pains, this week.

The introduction of a stable, reliable workforce to the Australian horticulture sector will increase productivity and industry profits and boost government tax revenue. Although these benefits will outweigh the administrative costs of establishing a seasonal labour scheme for Pacific Islands labour in the Australian horticulture sector, these costs are a significant first consideration for government and industry.  The Australian Government will want to proceed carefully and build tight controls into the design of any pilot program to minimise the risk of exploitation of Pacific Island workers, and to ensure that the goodwill generated by opening part of Australia’s labour market to the Pacific Islands is sustained.

Government, the farm industry and community groups need to manage issues such as airfares, transport, accommodation, taxation, health care, superannuation, remittance fees, compliance, integration and duty of care responsibilities.  Recruiting, screening and preparing their nationals to work abroad also puts a substantial strain on Pacific Island government services.

Concerns about the administrative and social costs of a seasonal labour scheme are important but need to be considered against some fundamental benefits to employees as well as to Australian farmers. For Pacific Islanders, income from work abroad is no different from incomes earned from selling agricultural produce to local markets or exporting raw commodities or working in urban centres in Pacific Islands. Like other incomes, the majority of remittances are likely to be spent on school fees, health care, improvements to housing and sanitation, and sustaining extended family networks. For Australian farmers, the challenges of managing a foreign, temporary workforce will require more effort, but the financial rewards are obvious.