Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:38 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:38 | SYDNEY

A seasonal work policy for the Pacific Islands


Jenny Hayward-Jones


11 January 2008 15:01

Reader Paul Cotton makes an interesting reference to a subject close to my heart and one I will continue to follow on The Interpreter:

Of particular interest will be the Government's view on work programs for Pacific islanders in Australia. Comments have been made that Australia is watching a trial program by New Zealand. New Zealand was taking church groups of workers from Samoa thirty years ago. As a result Samoa has the best built and funded churches in the Pacific. Work programs are the best way to get financial support back into the village society where it can do the most good. It could be that the ACTU is opposed to these schemes. The sooner a view is sought from the New Zealand Government the better.

Pacific Island countries have long lobbied without success for access to Australia’s labour market.  The Australian Senate’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee’s August 2003 report, A Pacific Engaged – Australia’s relations with the Papua New Guinea and the islands of the south west Pacific, recommended the development of a pilot program to allow for labour to be sourced from the region for seasonal work in Australia. The Committee believed such a scheme had the 'potential to provide meaningful and significant income and assistance to PNG and Pacific island countries at the same time as being of benefit to the Australian economy'.

AusAID’s Pacific Regional Aid Strategy 2004-2009 acknowledged that there is a 'strong correlation between labour mobility and poverty reduction' and notes in non-committal terms that more research is required on the issue. The Coalition Government was opposed to the introduction of a seasonal worker scheme and instead committed in 2006 to provide vocational and technical training across the region. The establishment of the Australia Pacific Technical College in 2007 was a welcome development but it does not obviate the need for a scheme that allows equitable access for unskilled labourers to work in the Australian market and helps to address Australia’s own labour shortages. The provision of fee-based technical training does not in itself create employment in Pacific Islands and does not guarantee access to the competitive Australian skilled migration program.

While Australia continued to defer serious consideration of labour mobility, the New Zealand government introduced a scheme known as the Recognised Seasonal Employer Work Visa for Pacific Island workers in October 2006. According to the New Zealand Minister for Social Development and Employment and the Minister for Immigration, New Zealand’s motivations in introducing the scheme were based on its interests in seeing a prosperous and stable region, aiding knowledge transfer through work experience and reaping productivity gains for New Zealand employers.

I don't want to rehearse here the volume of arguments for labour mobility or, more specifically, a seasonal work policy in Australia for Pacific Islanders. Nic Maclellan and Peter Mares are the experts and have made excellent arguments in various publications, including the World Bank’s 2006 report, At Home & Away: Expanding Job Opportunities for Pacific Islanders Through Labour Mobility,  for the introduction of a seasonal worker scheme. 

World Bank President Robert Zoellick said in Sydney in August 2007 that labour mobility was 'critical to the long-term development of the South Pacific.' The Rudd Government needs to offer the Pacific, and particularly Melanesia, tangible evidence that it is serious about addressing economic problems in the region and that Australia considers itself part of the region. A decision to introduce a pilot scheme for temporary unskilled labour from the Pacific would differentiate the ALP government from its predecessor in its approach to the Pacific, generate significant goodwill from the governments and people of the region, contribute to the economic development of Pacific Islanders, increase vital people-to-people links and go some way to increasing productivity in labour starved sectors of the Australian economy.