Pacific Island worker scheme a welcome move

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.

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  1. Floss: I don’t think much of Warren Mundine’s comments at all, I have to say. I think they adopt a ‘them and us’ mentality which is doubly unhelpful in regards to pacific islanders – particularly given our history and the intertwining links between some Australian Indigneous and south sea islander communities (certainly in central and northern Qld).

    There is nothing stopping these jobs being filled by unemployed Indigenous or other Austrailans now if they are capable and in the region. There also should be continuing efforts to improve Indigenous access to job vacancies, esp given our current low unemployed levels and labour shortages (there has been some success with this in parts of far North Qld lately).

    But none of that is a reason to prevent Pacific Islanders having access to the jobs if the jobs exist now (which they do) and employers cannot find anyone already in the country to fill them (which they can’t).

    We all know there are many wider reasons why some long-term unemployed people – including a disproportionate number of Indigenous Australians are unable to perform full-time unskilled manual labour. Effort needs to continue to be put into assisting in reducing those barriers, but there’s plenty of jobs to go around.

    (and I should mention that getting these existing jobs filled will also help create more jobs, expanding the overall number that are available)

  2. All I can say Andrew neither the AWU or even your comments are entirely fair,because, even though the majority of farmers may act legally and according to wage and condition setters also,my gripe which is hard to express in words is simply this”a lot of bank support and government support goes into farmers,and at times the intelligence of that,is like looking at the lost expenditure in the Defense area.I just dont think it is right any longer,a person living is still today described in a manner of being employed or not employed,simply because they require the assistance of a money system that dominates our whole life.The attitude you are or you arent a worker is rarely a circumstance in life generally as to the value of a persons company.Seeing no real input came from Australian seasonal workers on this,remains the great shame.It is true and odd that for all the years of backpacker workers entering our shores the real question of fairness if Persons from Malaysia right through to the Solomon Islands ,had less rights than the forever underpants losing Poms.And thats the real problem Andrew,It is right and totally fine and good to want a fairer Australia,but in many ways that for seasonal workers will remain not fair a large percentage of their lives.To have the bastards as they were at the CES only see you a a seasonal worker,whilst the so called skilled trades and Professions locked people out so the hierarchies of trade and Professions could claim superiority and bludgers amongst us, going for pay rises and accepting superannuation,and small business churning over trades people back to apprentice wages,underl Labor and Lib,it really is a wonder that anyone that has been unemployed in the last twenty years for any given length of time, doesn’t even find your words mildly offensive.

  3. I am fed up with the ongoing unchallenged slander of Australians as being “unwilling” or “too lazy” to do some of the jobs for which 457-visa “temporary” workers are being imported.

    Why doesn’t anyone have the guts to look at the reasons it is so hard to get Australians to do these jobs?

    Time and again I have heard both grey nomads and the unemployed come out with horror stories of overenthusiastic ratbags and of crazy regulations in ATO and Centrelink. Why harass and punish people for doing a couple of weeks seasonal work here and there? Why not reward them instead?

    Having done my share of picking and other farm work over the years, let me tell you that some farmers are terrific; they expect you to work hard and theyl work hard themselves alongside you; they pay well and right on time; they treat you like a human being.

    However, other farmers treat their workers like dirt; they try to cheat you at every turn and you have to fight for your money. Why would anyone in their right mind go back to them the next season to be treated like a mongrel dog again? Why do our taxes reward these farmers for their arrogance, their laziness and their incompetence?

    Perhaps if our precious journalists got their hands dirty with a bit of participative observation on farms before pontificating on the need for 457-visa holders, we would have less of their racist vilification of Australian workers.

    Pacific Islanders? Why mess around chasing people back and forth? Why not bring in Pacific Islander families as PERMANENT migrants instead?

  4. Mundine’s attack on the young this morning reported on the ABC news,is exactly why no-one should listen to the ALP when it claims via its spokes persons or self promoting spokespersons,that they know anything about even his young Aboriginal workers and others who will do this work.I say Mundine is the type of person,like so many well ensconced Aboriginals who truly love attention even if the outcome is detrimental and the stereo types get rolled out again.I am sickened as an Australian that in my young working life did seasonal work and was proud of it.Getting on well with workers and farmers generally,but I was carrying a few injuries that to this day are represented in farmers and heavy laboring.Comparing any injuries from Rugby with this now life forever injuries,only cure constant exercise,is equating oranges with apples.People like Mundine have had it easy,and yet the injury of wanting a camera or a microphone follow around his physiology and anatomy hasn’t satisfied him.I definitely think there should be guest workers,but, why havent anyone who could do this work even been surveyed and asked their opinions!?The answer could be called The Importance Game,with heaps of competitors.Why the young! Because he is trying to make a racist point,that has been well and truly used every year about all races and specifically the young.Thus keeping a lid on the problems even younger Aboriginals must have confronting the fact they are only seen as laborers and if they are of Olympian standard.Yet to have government treat workers like they were Olympians seems a task their grubby hands couldn’t do having physical work athritis.Mundine is thus right off the production line of Matesy N.S.W. that isnt pro-worker but pro reducing work to status moments in its trend to make everyone think they are professionals.Mug punters I would say.Workers ,however should be able to still collect the dole or pension whilst being fully employed in this manner and education and loans in time.

  5. Andrew Bartlett:

    Item 14 in today’s Crikey explains why the fruit industry lost most of their best pickers in one fell swoop [and it’s what I kept on hearing too].

    Taxing the most efficient fruit-pickers at “executive rates” had to be one of the most idiotic bits of bureaucratic nonsense ever. Oh yes but think of the big tax refund cheque …. Yeah. Right. Of course, how silly of us to think otherwise …. in eleven months time we might get some our own money back? Yeah. Right. Of course.

    Why couldn’t the whole mess have been avoided AND a flexible, innovative and just tax collection system been introduced? That way the fruit industry would have kept its best pickers and tax-dodging would have been both unnecessary and not worth the trouble..

    Sadly, this was only one of dozens of examples of corporate and governmental silliness that ensured Australian workers would have no choice but to stay away, in droves, from the workplaces where they were needed.

    Another example: The mining industry has had trouble attracting top-grade tradesmen ever since the crack-down on cheap housing in remote localities. Wasn’t that brilliant??? Then many of those same tradesmen fled overseas when Howard and his bunch went beserk on their ideology-driven industrial relations romp. Kick your best-and-brightest tradesmen around and threaten to take even more hard-earned money off them and they’ll come back for more, won’t they? But look on the bright side, these Australian tradesmen are making the growing Australian ex-pat communities in trading competitor countries even more vibrant …. Australia’s loss is our gain ….

    We pay senior public servants to make responsible, rational policies; not to wreck industries ….

  6. Graham Bell:

    In answer to your final question in your first post, I think it would be easier for those farmers you mentioned to treat foreign workers like “mongrel dogs” if they DIDN’T become permanent residents.

    I don’t think Oxfam would be in favour of mistreatment of foreign workers. If that happened, I think they might withdraw their support.

  7. Andrew Bartlett and All:

    Australia needs migrants. Good migrants …. of any colour or creed; migrants who will work for the benefit of themselves and of the whole Australian community.

    But before we rush headlong into using 457-visa temporary workers in the forlorn hope that it is the magic spell for solving each and every endemic labour mess we have got ourselves into, let’s take a hard look at a few of the many causes of the alleged and thoroughly artificial labour shortage in Australia.

    [1] Over-fussy employERS. The mirror-image of “dole-bludgers”.

    [2] Credentialism. Hiring the piece of paper instead of having the wits to distinguish a good job applicant from a bad one.

    [3] Unfair discrimination on the basis of age.

    [4] Bad employers. Ones who just cannot keep staff, no matter how hard the staff work, because these bad employers are abusers and bullies, cheat their workers, are control-freaks, are ditherers or are just plain dangerous!

    [5] An education system that nowadays hates and despises physical work and applauds sit-down jobs …. and, worse yet, where those teaching are, in the main, people who have never done hard physical work for pay themselves.

    [6] Bureaucratic nonsense. Like the ATO being so overzealous squeezing miniscue amounts of revenue out of seasonal workers whilst doing so little about the massive “tax-minimization” swindles by major corporations.

    [7] Unnecessary restrictions on labour market mobility. Our housing system makes it very difficult for workers to move to another locality in response to vacancies there.

    [8] Financial incentives to NOT employ Australians.

    The dismal list goes on and on ….

    By the way, those greedy rural layabouts pretending to be farmers are in for the shock of their lives if they think they will be able to treat Pacific Islanders like “unsophisticated bush kanakas” of a bygone era.

  8. Andrew no one has mentioned the internation backpacker harvest worker in this debate which in many cases is the single largest source of labour, filling the shortfall for season producers for one end of the contry to the other.
    While the Working Holiday Maker visa provides a critcal source of labour for many growers, this is not its primary purpose. The program exist mainly to promote cultural exchanges by allowing young people to travel and explore other countries.
    These young working travellers return home to be ambassadors for Australia. Some may become company chief executives or heads of government departments that one day nay be in need of produce that they harvest.
    During the 2007-07 financial year 559,900 international backpackersspent $3.1 million in Australia. A large proportion of this money was spent in regional communities that have suffered low farm prices, drought, floods and bushfires.
    Registered backpacker hostel operators need the support of governments and the National Farmers Federation as they invest hunders of thousands of dollars in accommodation standards in accommodation stards and looking after the backpacker welfare.
    The higher tax that the backpacker pays must be removed and the use of the visa, to be used once in a life time should be lifted

  9. Thanks Peter – I mentioned the people coming here on working holiday visas in the 3rd paragraph of my post. But I agree with you that these people play a crucial role in addressing labour shortages. Whilst I don’t dispute your comment about the benefit Australia can get from these people returning to their homelands as ‘ambassadors’ for Australia, there is no doubt the massive expansion in the working holiday visa over the last decade has been in part due to growing labour shortages in some areas and industries. The previous government openly promoted expansions to the working holiday scheme as a benefit to employers.

    What I don’t understand is why we can bring in 134 000 people on working holiday visas each year (up from around 50 000 ten years ago), who can stay for up to two years and travel wherever they like and work wherever they like, and no one says a word, but as soon as we talk about bringing in 2500 people to work in a particular industry in a particular area where there is a demonstraable shortage of workers for periods of less than a year, we suddenly get all this stuff about them taking Aussies’ jobs.

  10. Peter McMahon:

    You said ” “These young working travellers return home to be ambassadors for Australia. Some may become company chief executives or heads of government departments …..” ”

    That is a real worry!

    Some, no doubt, thoroughly enjoyed their working holiday in Australia …. but others definitely did not enjoy being exploited, being ripped off, working under current backward working conditions and generally being treated like dirt.

    Andrew Bartlett:

    Apart from real concern about a handful of Pacific Islanders 457-visa workers being used as a precedent [a Trojan Horse if you like] for wholesale human trafficking and debt slavery from other parts of the world …. why can’t we simply bring in these Pacific Islanders as straight-out migrants? Bring their families too.

    There probably are leisured do-badders who would shriek to high heaven about imagined injustices if such migrants were contracted to remain in a certain region or in a certain range of industries for a couple of years [as a “stick”] and offered cheap housing, cheap reconditioned vehicles and other inducements [as a “carrot”] but why not do just that? Such restrictions and inducements would certainly prevent the expansion of metropolitan ethnic ghettos as well as revtalize country towns.

    I have to agree with those Aborigines who are rightly outraged at Aborigines being excluded from these job opportunities. It is discriminatory. It is racist. It is insulting.

    If the labour shortage is as bad as it is said to be …. then there surely is plenty of room for Aborigines, for Pacific Islands [and Timor Leste] permanent migrants and for unemployed urban Australians [of all races, ages and creeds].

  11. Yes, it seems to be an anomalous situation. If there’s a shortage of workers, why are our citizens being treated so badly?

    Yesterday I encountered a young girl working in a $2.00 shop. Besides working the checkout, she was assembling hanging plant pots, using pliers and a paint scraper to attach the chains.

    Her hands were covered in injuries, so I suggested she ask the employer for some suitable gloves. She said he would not give her any, nor was there anything suitable for sale in the store, and if she complained she would lose her job.

    I know another young girl who was out of work for months after suffering an injury to her right wrist in another $2.00 shop. She had to wait weeks for physiotherapy at the public hospital, and the employer wasn’t paying her any kind of income support.

    If you go to the cinema, they open the doors at the last moment, so they can pay mostly young people as little as possible.

    At the state-of-the-art private nursing home where rock bottom wages are paid, a young man told me he often has to work overtime for nothing.

    How are employers getting away with treating young people like rubbish if there is a shortage of workers?

    I think if migrant workers were offered cheap housing, vehicles and other incentives, it would certainly be seen as a discrimination against others.

    On Monday, I was speaking with an aboriginal man who came here recently from Darwin. He was complaining bitterly about having to pay $170 a week just for a room in Brisbane. In Darwin, he can rent a 2 bedroom, fully furnished, air-conditioned unit for the same price. Needless to say, he intends to go back where he came from.

  12. Graham – Neither Aboriginal people, nor any other Australians are “excluded from these job opportunities”. The jobs are already there and available to any Australian. The reason why there is a need to allow some migrant workers in to perform the tasks is because it has consistently been the case over a number of years that not enough people already living here can be found to fill those jobs.

    I think it would be good if more Pacific Islanders were able to come here as permanent migrants as well, and hopefully some of those who come here initially under this scheme may be able to provide a pathway for that to happen. However, they are not 457 visas (which is focused on specfic skilled occupations), they are shorter-term seasonal worker schemes who will be required to work in a particular area. The conditions of the visa and the trial will not allow ‘debt slavery’ – indeed it should help reduce the temptation for some in these fruit growing areas to use illegal labour who are more at risk of being exploited.

    Lorikeet – “I think if migrant workers were offered cheap housing, vehicles and other incentives, it would certainly be seen as a discrimination against others.” These workers will be offered the same conditions, including any housing packages, that would already be avilable to Australian based workers.

  13. Lorikeet:

    Sadly. the examples you gave are the reality of working conditions in today’s Other Australia.

    No. I didn’t intend adding even more discrimination against Aborigines and other Australians. I was thinking more along the lines of the inducements that used to be offered by mining companies in remote areas before Treasury’s “red guard” ideologues put an end to very cheap house rent for miners and their families

    Andrew Bartlett:

    Perhaps my use of the term “exclusion” might have seemed a bit strong but the way the Pacific Islander 457-visa scheme was presented made it smell too much like the previous migration rackets that put native-born and permanent-migrant Australians at a disadvantage.

    The extreme qualifications racket of the ’80s and ’90s was one such …. Just advertise a fake “vacant position” with impossible selection criteria in the “Macquarie Island Daily” a few times and when no suitable local applicants could be found, front up to Immigration with an application to import a cousin from home who just happened to have the required 8 years experience of card-shuffling in Swahili and Estonian. Bad luck, Aussie, the “job” has gone. The “Japanese tour guide” racket, which had such a corrosive effect on the willingness of young Australians to study Asian languages was one example of the racket that was given wide coverage in the news media – yet nothing was ever done about it.

    The lack of action over what was a manifest Aussie-bashing immigration racket back then is what now makes me very sceptical about assurances that Pacific Islander [and hopefully, Timorese] 457-visa holders will be properly supervised to protect them from debt-slavery.

    You also said ” ” it has consistently been the case over a number of years that not enough people already living here can be found to fill those jobs”. ”

    Then why weren’t the obvious and chronic underlying causes of that problem addressed years ago?

  14. Graham Bell & Lorikeet:

    I’m against this as well. Our bloke in Lyne is campaigning heavly against it and is the only one of the candidates doing so.

    I’ll see if I can get him to make comment.


  15. Andrew & Others
    We pickers would like to inform you all that there is NO shortage of pickers – only a shortage of growers who are prepared to pay and perhaps treat people with a bit of decency. A quote from a blueberry grower – “All pickers are pieces of s***. If you leave I only have to shake a bush and another 100 pieces of s*** will crawl out from under it.” Maybe the NFF would be better off spending its money on a bit of HR training.
    There are plenty of professional fruit pickers out here, but no one speaks out for us. We hope that the taxes will not be lowered for all the visiting pickers, as it will be needed to pay the dole for all of us when we can no longer get a start. Try getting a start at Childers or Bundaburg now – Australians not needed.

    Backpackers have undermined pay and conditions for all, as they only need enough to keep their holiday plans. Most of them only do the amount of time required to extend their visas, therefore will accept what ever is offered. I have seen German backpackers picking for $7 per hour – they knew they were being ripped off but only needed another few weeks for their visa extension.

    The senate inquiry you referred to in 2006 rightly recommended against this plan – nothing has changed, except perhaps wanting the Pacific countries to sign up to the PACER trade deal. Perhaps I am just tired and cynical.
    Strange to think that the Howard government wouldn’t allow this but a Labor government and the AWU will – it seems that they have both climbed into bed with the NFF. Sad times for the workers.

  16. John Sutton, National Secretary of the CFMEU wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald on April 30, “Those employers who use the constant refrain of ‘We can’t get Australians to do hard and dirty work’ ought to stop leaving the last three words off their complaint. Those three words ‘at low pay’ tell the real story”.

    There are large pockets of unemployment among young people, in regional areas and in Indigenous communities. The Illawarra (NSW) region has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in Australia – 22.2% in the 19-24 age group. What does exist is a shortage of workers prepared to work for very low wages for only a few months of the year.
    Agricultural workers are among the lowest paid in the workforce, fruit & vegetable pickers are the lowest paid in the agricultural industry. The AWU has reported cases of undocumented workers being paid as little as $3 per hour. There are indications that a large part of Victorians fruit crop is picked by undocumented workers – these could include refugees on bridging visas who don’t have work rights.
    There’re plenty of cases of abuse under the 457 visas. Sadly, it’s too easy for greedy employers to abuse people, particularly those with English as a second language, non-unionised and vulnerable. ! What’s also lacking, and convenient to ignore, are the real reasons for poverty in the Pacific!

  17. Apple Picker:

    That’s right. The major parties all climb into bed with nearly anyone, regardless of the social diseases they might be spreading.

    I think we need to find some good Independents to vote for.

  18. Lorikeet
    How true – bring on the Independants.

    It is true about the illegals picking, but remember the growers are meant to check Visas and are supposed to be liable for large fines for employing them. How many do you see charged for that? Also if growers employ illegals they get to keep the money that would have been paid to taxation and supperannuation – therefore cheaper picking.

    Immigration did a lot of raids some time back in Qld, but the growers complained they were losing too many workers so the raids were stopped.
    It is also worth knowing that a lot of the undocumented workers are actually Australian old age pensioners – they can run like the wind if it looks like a raid is on. Great country now isn’t it, where the old people have to cheat to make enough money to live? A lot of them are still fantastic pickers, and good luck to them.

    We are sympathetic to the Islanders but we are concerned about our jobs and trying to avoid poverty ourselves. Consider the price of fuel and how that is affecting us – no grower is offering to pay any of our costs but they will pay half the airfare for guest workers and provide accomodation – unbelievable.
    Forget the AWU – a survey of the orchard could not find one person who had ever seen a union rep, and thats going back over 15 years and longer. They don’t even want know that Australian pickers exist – all you ever hear about from them is the backpackers and 457’s. They should learn a bit of history from the AMIEU and the MUA then they would stop holding hands with the NFF (Nasty Farmers Federation).
    By the way there are actually good growers and they don’t have any trouble getting pickers – we knock their doors down to get in.

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