I am pleased to see the federal government has formally announced a trial allowing up to 2500 people from neighbouring countries of Tonga, Vanuatu, Kiribati and Papua New Guinea to do seasonal work in Australia. In doing so, they have shown up the failure of courage and policy integrity of the previous government.
The Opposition’s complaint that this proposal is “rushed” is simply false. The idea has been debated for a number of years, with many Pacific Island nations and some Australian farmer organisations and development agencies such as Oxfam pushing hard for such a scheme to be trialled. It was the subject of an extended Senate Committee inquiry back in 2006. Similar schemes have already been tested in New Zealand, as well as Canada, with lessons learnt from those experiences in how to prevent exploitation or misuse of the scheme.
In 2006-2007, over 134 000 people – all from developed countries and the majority of them from Europe – were able to come to Australia to do temporary, unskilled work on working holiday visas. I have never heard any explanation as to why it could be fine for thousands and thousands of people from rich countries to be able to come here to do casual unskilled labour each year, but bad for a few thousand people from poor countries in our own region to be able to do seasonal unskilled labour – under far tighter conditions (which will provide much more reliability for employers) than any backpackers have to face.
The Liberal Party’s knee-jerk opposition (an approach they seem to be taking almost across the board at the moment) has been a combination of straw-clutching and straw men, showing they not only haven’t moved on from the Howard era, but are flirting with some of the same protectionist arguments used since the 1800s to oppose migrant workers. It is a sad sign of how low the modern ‘Liberals’ have sunk that a National Party MP, Kay Hull, is taking a less protectionist, less anti-migrant position.
Apart the false claim that the proposal is rushed, the Liberal’s position seems to be based on grabbing at any of the tired old anti-migrant arguments they can think of. Yet at the same time as flinging out any complaint they can think of as to why the scheme might not work, they are also saying it is bad that some nations in our region are being excluded from it!
To their credit, the Australian Workers Union (AWU), Australia’s largest union which covers many farm workers, has said they are prepared to support a trial. However, the CFMEU has stepped into the breach, teaming up with the Liberals in running the protectionist line. Like any organisation more than a century old, the AWU has some less than glorious components to their history. A major example was their support at the end of the 19th Century for the racist White Australia policy, a stance in part driven by a desire to push out Pacific Island workers – the so-called Kanakas, who were used in some cases as slave labour to develop Queensland’s suger industry. It is good to see that the AWU, unlike some others, have not sought to tap into the echoes from that era which still exist.
Temporary migrants are always at greater risk of exploitation, partly because our migration laws given them fewer rights than other residents, and partly because they are often less aware of what rights they do have. By definition they are less secure, which makes them much more wary of trying to protect those rights. But that is no reason not to allow people in to the country; it is a reason to ensure they have adequate support when they arrive. That to me will be the key test of this scheme – ensuring that migrant workers have sufficient social support when they arrive, particularly from people who aware of the cultural and social differences that can be present.
ELSEWHERE: Tim Dunlop comments, and also points to a good piece on the issue at the Lowy Institute blog. Paul Kelly’s analysis in The Australian is reasonably balanced, showing some of the links to broader patterns in the labour force into the future.
This recent speech by Duncan Kerr, the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, gives some of the context of labour mobility and development issues in the Pacific region.