Reader response: Pacific labour mobility
3 Dec 2014|

Graeme Dobell argues in his latest post that ‘the one thing the Islands want from Australia and New Zealand—labour mobility—is the one thing Australia and New Zealand won’t give’. He says that ‘If PACER Plus is going to deliver new opportunities to the Islands then it must tackle the taboo of labour mobility’.

Graeme’s right that  Pacific Island nations see labour mobility as an essential component of the PACER Plus negotiations. We’ve now got a Seasonal Workers Program where people from the Pacific and Timor-Leste can work in Australia on a short term basis in select industries. We recently invited Fiji to join the SWP.

ANU development economist Stephen Howes points out that in 2013–14, the SWP cap was 2,500 and just 2,000 workers came. The main problem is backpackers:

…backpackers are currently rewarded for three months work on a farm by a second year’s visa…It has been incredibly effective in channelling an ever-growing number of backpackers onto farms. Pacific seasonal workers simply can’t compete with backpackers. The number of backpackers who applied for a second-year visa on the basis of farm work in 2005-06 roughly equals the number of Pacific SWP workers last year. But in the meantime the number of backpackers on farms has shot up to over 40,000! No wonder the SWP is languishing. If Australia is serious about the SWP…the two most important things we could do are reform the backpacker scheme and increase the SWP cap. Both together are important. Increasing the cap on its own will achieve nothing. Reforming the backpacker scheme and not increasing the cap will quickly make the SWP cap binding.

Apart from those two sensible reforms, why don’t we look across ‘the ditch’ and consider a variant on New Zealand’s Pacific Access Category (PAC) scheme as a way of addressing unemployment in the Islands. Under the PAC and Samoan Quota Scheme for settlement in New Zealand, New Zealand provides residence to a number of citizens from Island countries. The schemes provide opportunities for low-skilled workers and for those who don’t qualify to migrate under the various skills categories.

Eleven hundred Samoan citizens are granted residence in New Zealand each year under the Samoan Quota Scheme. Under the PAC, New Zealand grants residence to 75 Tuvaluan and 75 Kiribati citizens as well as 250 Tongan citizens each year. Fijian nationals will be able to apply next year. Both the PAC and the Samoan Quota are determined by ballot. Applicants become eligible for the schemes once their registration number is drawn from the ballot pool for their country. To be eligible, applicants must register for the annual ballot and meet application requirements. The principal applicant must be aged between 18 and 45 years and be a citizen of one of the three PAC countries or of Samoa. Applicants must either have been born in one of those four eligible countries or be the children of citizens who were born in an eligible country.

After being selected from the ballot, applicants can apply for residence if they (or their partner) have an acceptable offer of employment and meet health, character and minimum English language requirements. Applicants with dependent children must meet minimum income standards. Under the PAC and Samoan Quota schemes, New Zealand accepts 1,500 migrants annually. If an equivalent program were adopted in Australia, and we accepted the same number of migrants per capita as New Zealand, we’d accept 7,964 migrants.

Graeme Dobell suggests that the ‘prize of labour mobility’ between Australia and the Islands maybe three decades away. In the meantime, we ought to consider a permanent Pacific migration scheme like New Zealand’s, at least for the smaller island states, where such an arrangement would make a significant economic difference. It would also put more Pacific people into our Pacific policy.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user ashokboghani.