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Monday 21 Aug 2017 | 11:13 | SYDNEY
Monday 21 Aug 2017 | 11:13 | SYDNEY

Labour mobility: Making the neighbours feel at home

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18 August 2008 16:40

The Australian Government has finally announced a three-year pilot seasonal worker scheme for up to 2,500 workers from Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Tonga and Kiribati to work in Australia’s horticulture industry for up to seven months. After convening a very constructive conference on seasonal labour in June and much blogging on this issue, I have to admit to a great sense of relief at the announcement. 

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has the luxury of attending his first Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Summit in Niue this week with a new Australian policy that enables him to differentiate, very clearly, his government’s approach to the Pacific from his predecessor’s more hardline position. However, it is incumbent on the Australian government and horticultural industry to implement a well-designed program to ensure that Australian horticultural production benefits from the more reliable supply of labour, that Pacific Island workers get real financial benefits from the opportunity and that Australia’s relations with its nearest neighbours are enhanced by this significant shift in the way Australia engages with the region. 

Australian Agriculture Minister Tony Burke has shown the way for Australian responsibility by outlining some strict criteria for Australian farmers’ participation in the scheme. Australian employers must demonstrate that they have already made reasonable efforts to employ Australians and participate in training and career development programs for Australians before they are able to employ Pacific Island workers. They will be required to pay half of the return airfares and cover the costs of establishment and pastoral care for workers. 

But the responsibility is not all in Australia’s hands. It is also crucial for the four Pacific island nations that will participate in the pilot program to apply their own strict criteria to their recruitment and preparation processes. Offering the opportunity to those who do not have real options for formal employment at home is important in ensuring the scheme will have the pro-poor outcome desired by governments. The provision of comprehensive advice on work and living conditions in Australia, estimates of income and expenses, high quality pre-deployment training and attention to families left at home is equally critical for the success of the scheme for Pacific islands themselves. Pacific island workers who decide to take up the opportunity armed with good information and advice are more likely to make a valuable contribution to their workplace and their families’ income. 

Part of the challenge of implementation of a seasonal labour scheme in Australia will be in ensuring the governments of Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Tonga and Kiribati also assume their responsibility for making it a success for their people.

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