Pa­cific Is­land na­tions fear Aus­tralia’s visa changes will dis­ad­van­tage their economies

The Guardian Australia - - News - He­len David­son and Eleanor Ainge Roy

Pa­cific Is­land na­tions are closely watch­ing changes to Aus­tralia’s visa rules for vis­it­ing work­ers, in­clud­ing ex­pan­sions of farm work rights for back­pack­ers, as well as a re­cently an­nounced re­view by New Zealand of its own re­gional labour scheme.

On Tues­day the Aus­tralian govern­ment an­nounced changes to its work­ing hol­i­day visas that raised age caps and ex­tended the length of stays at farms and on the visas over­all if the work is in the agri­cul­tural sec­tor.

It also an­nounced an ex­ten­sion of the sea­sonal work­ers pro­gram (SWP), al­low­ing par­tic­i­pants from nine Pa­cific coun­tries and Ti­mor-Leste to come to Aus­tralia for longer pe­ri­ods.

Pa­cific ob­servers had voiced con­cerns that the ex­pan­sion of back­packer work would fur­ther com­pete with the SWP, which was a sig­nif­i­cant con­trib­u­tor to many na­tions’ economies.

There are stricter reg­u­la­tions and re­quire­ments, as well as pas­toral care du­ties for em­ploy­ers un­der the SWP.

Aus­tralia and New Zealand both run pro­grams bring­ing Pa­cific Is­land na­tion­als in for sea­sonal em­ploy­ment on farms, con­cur­rently ad­dress­ing labour short­ages in the two coun­tries.

Abel Guter­res, the Ti­mor-Leste am­bas­sador to Aus­tralia, told Guardian Aus­tralia his na­tion was will­ing and ready to pro­vide as many work­ers as Aus­tralian farm­ers wanted to hire.

“If the Aus­tralian farm­ers want 100,000 we can sup­ply 100,000 eas­ily,” he said. “Sixty per cent of our pop­u­la­tion are un­der the age of 30. That means we have a mas­sive amount of young peo­ple who are will­ing to work and the Aus­tralian farm­ers don’t need to worry.”

Guter­res said the sea­sonal work­ers pro­gram was the best form of aid the coun­try re­ceived.

“It is bring­ing in the re­mit­tances which goes di­rectly to the vil­lages, while also ex­pos­ing these young peo­ple to work ethics and what work­ing is all about in the in­dus­trial sys­tem,” he said. “You are in­ject­ing this cash into the vil­lage econ­omy. They are build­ing their houses and schools, im­prov­ing liv­ing con­di­tions, it’s fan­tas­tic.”

Guter­res said he had not been no­ti­fied about de­tails of the changes to Aus­tralia’s visas but he hoped the ex­pan­sion in the num­ber of back­pack­ers did not dis­ad­van­tage the Pa­cific Is­land work­ers.

“If it does, then we need to talk about it a bit more,” he said. “It would be a pity.”

Ti­mor-Leste sent 298 work­ers to Aus­tralia in 2016 but ex­pects by the end of next month to have sent more than 1,300 in 2018. Each sends an av­er­age of $6,000 back to Ti­mor-Leste, said Melissa Den­ning, labour at­tache at the Ti­morese em­bassy.

Den­ning said the Aus­tralian em­ploy­ers Ti­mor-Leste worked with could plan at least a year ahead with sea­sonal work­ers as op­posed to back­pack­ers, and the Ti­morese govern­ment had a li­ai­son sta­tioned in the coun­try.

Joseph Ma’ahanua, the Solomon Is­lands trade com­mis­sioner, said he had been fol­low­ing re­cent de­vel­op­ments but it was too soon to know if the changes would ad­versely af­fect their work­force.

“The ex­ten­sion of the du­ra­tion for a worker un­der the sea­sonal work­ers pro­gram is some­thing that is pos­i­tive,” Ma’ahanua said. “We are also aware of the dif­fer­ences in terms of how the em­ploy­ers have re­sponded to the qual­ity of work that is be­ing done by those com­ing un­der the sea­sonal work­ers pro­gram.”

He said the Solomon Is­lands had been late to sign on to the pro­gram and, com­bined with a pos­si­ble lack of pre­pared­ness, their num­bers had dwin­dled but they were now work­ing on re­cruit­ment drives with Aus­tralia’s as­sis­tance.

“As it is, I think we have a lot of work to do as well in or­der to get that mar­ketabil­ity of the work­force that we have avail­able,” he said.

Be­fore an in­crease to the cap of New Zealand’s recog­nised sea­sonal em­ployer scheme (RSE), the govern­ment is plan­ning to con­duct a re­view into the so­cial cost in the Pa­cific Is­lands, and the wel­fare of work­ers in New Zealand.

Many New Zealand hor­ti­cul­ture and viti­cul­ture op­er­a­tions could not op­er­ate with­out RSE work­ers and the govern­ment has in­creased the num­ber of work­ers from 5,000 in 2007 to nearly 13,000 this year, with work­ers re­cruited from nine Pa­cific Is­land na­tions.

The im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter, Iain Lees-Gal­loway, said the re­view would aim to im­prove liv­ing and work­ing con­di­tions for RSE em­ploy­ees, as their long-term in­volve­ment was vi­tal to New Zealand in­dus­tries such as wine and fruit-pick­ing.

Lees-Gal­loway said health checks on RSE work­ers re­quired by the New Zealand govern­ment were plac­ing a strain and “bur­den” on health fa­cil­i­ties in the Pa­cific Is­lands, and some coun­tries may re­quire as­sis­tance with health checks to meet in­creased de­mand.

Lees-Gal­loway said the over­all wel­fare of RSE work­ers in New Zealand was good and had im­proved con­sid­er­ably in the last few years.

“Not to say that I think things are ab­so­lutely per­fect but the sit­u­a­tion for RSE work­ers is con­sid­er­ably bet­ter than it is for a lot of other peo­ple work­ing in those in­dus­tries,” the min­is­ter told RNZ.

Cur­rently just 8,500 Pa­cific work­ers travel to Aus­tralia but the Aus­tralian as­sis­tant min­is­ter for in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment, Ann Rus­ton, said the num­bers were in­creas­ing by 40% year on year.

“Our sea­sonal work­ers scheme is un­capped so ob­vi­ously there is a huge amount of scope for the in­crease,” she told Ra­dio New Zealand this week.

Rus­ton said the govern­ment needed to make sure the pro­grams were easy for Pa­cific Is­landers to ac­cess, and for­eign min­is­ter Marise Payne would be con­tin­u­ing dis­cus­sions with lead­ers at the up­com­ing Apec con­fer­ence.

Van­u­atu and Tonga are the two big­gest senders of labour to Aus­tralia and New Zealand un­der worker pro­grams, the lat­ter send­ing about 13% of its pop­u­la­tion aged 20-45 each year. For Tonga and Samoa the ex­port of labour had be­come one of the main in­dus­tries for both na­tions.

On Tues­day the Aus­tralian prime min­is­ter, Scott Mor­ri­son, praised the changes be­cause back­pack­ers “don’t go home with any money in their pocket”.

“Ev­ery­thing they earn here, they spend here,” he said.

Pho­to­graph: Tim Mars­den/AAP

Van­u­atu and Tonga are the two big­gest senders of labour to Aus­tralia and New Zealand un­der worker pro­grams, the lat­ter send­ing about 13%of its pop­u­la­tion aged 20-45 each year.

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