Seasonal workers in New Zealand

The issue of labour migration and seasonal work is back on the agenda of Pacific island governments and donor agencies. Pacific population is increasing by 177,100 each year and at the present rate the region's population will double in the next 36 years.

Disaggregating those statistics makes the situation far more pressing. Population growth is much higher in Melanesia than elsewhere. The 'youth bulge' facing PNG and Solomon Islands in particular is projected to increase as fertility rates remain high. In lieu of substantial economic growth in the region (leaving aside notable exceptions such as PNG), gaining greater access to the labour markets of Australia and New Zealand is a necessity.

Temporary migration and labour mobility are regularly discussed at the Pacific Islands Forum and in bilateral discussions. While a number of schemes exist, the biggest are New Zealand's Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme and the Australian Seasonal Worker Program (SWP). Now in its eighth year, the RSE is generally considered a success. Demand for workers far outstrips supply, with many calling on the New Zealand Government to increase the cap on worker numbers.

The situation in Australia is far less rosy. Only 710 visas were granted to Pacific seasonal workers for the first half of the 2013-14 financial year. On those numbers it is unlikely that the cap of 2500 visas per year will be reached. There is an almost uniform view that increasing the number of workers requires a 'demand-side fix'.

Expanding the SWP isn't an easy task. It requires broader structural reforms and a whole lot of political will. The broader point is this: given the importance of labour mobility for Pacific futures, and the integral role in poverty alleviation that migration can play, we need to elevate this discussion to a serious level.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is a big proponent of private-sector driven development. A commitment to the SWP should follow. Additionally, the Australian Government has declared its commitment to conclusion of the PACER Plus negotiations. If this agreement is to be more than just a standard FTA (and this has always been the Australian position) then labour mobility needs to be on the table.

There is no doubt that there are other priorities for Pacific countries which struggle for capacity in core functions like health, education, and balancing the government bottom-line. So while labour mobility alone will not make the Pacific prosperous, it has the capacity to contribute to long term job creation and social development.

There is an opportunity here for Australia and New Zealand to lead the way in initiating a development-friendly program (or group of programs) for labour mobility in the Pacific. Migration doesn't occur in a vacuum, and there is far more to do to ensure that related policies are coherent and support development goals. For example, remittance-fueled development in Vanuatu is unlikely to reach its full potential unless donors are serious about providing funds for rural electrification to allow for returning workers and their communities to convert cash to sustainable livelihood opportunities in rural areas. It is this kind of alignment that's needed. 

Migration policies are likely to be 'development friendly' when we move toward a greater level of policy coherence. That is, when we are serious about advancing development and migration policies that are closely aligned.

Image courtesy of the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.