Julie Bishop promoting the Seasonal Worker Program

Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, has long been a backer of the Seasonal Worker Program (SWP). Both in Opposition and Government, she has touted the scheme as a private-sector driven development initiative worthy of expansion. During ministerial visits throughout the Pacific last month, Bishop used the scheme to highlight Australia’s links with the region.

Her long awaited talks with Fijian PM Frank Bainimarama saw Bishop hint at Fiji’s inclusion in the SWP. In a post-meeting interview with FBC News, Bishop had this to say:

“We want to engage more deeply across a whole range of areas including trade and investment areas, military and defence and the people-to-people links, through a seasonal workers program, through student exchanges and the like.”

This would come as welcome news to the large Fijian community in Australia, who have questioned the Australian Government’s exclusion of Fijian workers – especially given it came about as a result of a military coup that was out of their control. Whilst no timeframe has been laid out for Fiji’s inclusion, it is likely to be finalised in the lead up to this year’s election as sanctions are progressively eased.

During an address to the Lae Chamber of Commerce, Bishop also called upon Papua New Guinea to lift its game in the SWP:

“For some reason, it doesn’t seem to be taken up with great enthusiasm in Papua New Guinea. For example, the Tongan Government has sent 1200 seasonal workers to Australia in the last 12 months. Papua New Guinea has sent 26—I think we can do better than that.”

Interestingly, the Minister also touched on the backpackers’ scheme which is now (almost) available to PNG. Here the news is even worse:

“There’s also a program we announced for working holidays. We have a visa category for working holiday visas. There are 100 places available but so far I think the paperwork is bogged down and we haven’t been able to get these visas out to the young people who would love the opportunity, I am sure, to come to Australia. So there is another plug for the Working Holiday visas.”

The working holiday visa agreement with PNG was signed on 12 October 2011, but, according to the June 2013 Working Holiday report, is not yet in effect.

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Jesse Doyle

Jesse Doyle is a Social Protection Economist with the World Bank in Sydney. His areas of focus encompass social protection, labor mobility and youth employment. Prior to joining the World Bank, he worked as a Research Officer with the Development Policy Centre and held research related roles with the Institute for International Development, the World Policy Institute, Eurasia Group, and Grameen Bank.

3 Comments

  • Dear Jesse

    I appreciate your sympathy to the Pacific Islanders. But your reply to me illustrates the failure to understand the injustice against current Pacific Islanders.

    You say that “This history of exploitation forms part of the reason that so many social protections have been put in place for the SWP.” I doubt the validity of this statement of yours. Currently Australia (and NZ and Canada) take as many skilled and professional human resources that the Pacific Islands throw at them- but not the hundreds of thousands of unskilled persons who really need the jobs. The SWP is a “drop in the ocean”, tokenism by Australia at the moment (however valuable to the persons and their communities).

    You say: “Anecdotal evidence suggests that even with these protections in place, there have still been instances of Australian employers taking advantage of Pacific seasonal workers”. Of course there will be exploitation of workers, just as there is exploitation of Australian workers here and there. Respect the Pacific Islanders enough to let them decide on the benefits and the risks of coming to work in Australia.

    Just as millions of Europeans have decided over the decades on whether to settle in Australia as part of Australia’s subsidized immigration schemes, even though for many it often resulted initially in quite miserable lives for themselves, but great standards of living that were enjoyed later by their children and grand-children.

    The real problem for Australia is the inability of decision-makers to get out of their “White Australia fortress mentality” in the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by brown people. That mentality is being made more more and more painful for Australia with China’s enormous inroads into the Pacific Island economies and politics, including that of Australia.

    It won’t be too long before China and India also ask Australia to say “sorry” for the injustice against all the Chinese and Indians who were also ejected in 1905 (in addition to kanaks) as part of Australia’s federalism plan to create a White Australia.

    Perhaps then Australia might say “sorry” to the Pacific Islands whose young people were enslaved a hundred years ago, and in addition to just “reflecting” on that sorry enforcement of a labor market of sorts, right the historical wrongs by letting unemployed Pacific Islanders work freely in Australia (often at jobs that Australian citizens are reluctant to take on).

    This is a “win-win” situation that Australia has sadly not taken advantage of, and in the process lost a great opportunity to really bind the Pacific Islands to themselves in ways that no external Super Power would have been able to unbind. Some of my thoughts here (and other failures of Australian policy towards the Pacific) were elaborated in this article “PICTA, PACER and EPAs: weaknesses in Pacific island countries’ trade policies”. Pacific Economic Bulletin – Volume 19, Number 3, 2004.

    Your original article also gave the impression that the slow progress on the token 100 Working Holiday Visas for PNG might have been on the PNG side, when clearly the article also made clear that it was Australian “paper work” that had held up the program even though the initiative had begun in 2011. Lovely euphemism, “paper work”.

    That said and done, Australia is moving in the right direction, even if it is at the endangered tortoise speed, and for whatever reasons.

  • Wadan,

    Thank you for your comments. I would certainly agree that the tragic exploitation of Pacific Islanders in building the north Queensland sugar industry should be reflected on. I haven’t had a chance to see ‘Sugar Slaves’ yet, but have been meaning to. This history of exploitation forms part of the reason that so many social protections have been put in place for the SWP. Anecdotal evdience suggests that even with these protections in place, there have still been instances of Australian employers taking advantage of Pacific seasonal workers.

    On your second point, expanding the Working Holiday Maker (WHM) Visa to PICs is certainly something we’ve been pushing for. Allowing Pacific Islanders access to this visa category would enable them to compete on an equal footing with European and Asian backpackers in the horticultural labour market. Horticultural employers have overwhelmingly endorsed Pacific seasonal workers for their dependability, enthusiasm while working and productivity levels. Not as much can be said for backpackers or Australian workers. On your final point, I believe there was some reluctance on Australia’s part to enter into a binding agreement on labour mobility because they’d said it would need to be WTO compatible. In theory, this would have left Australia open to that agreement being challenged by other states for similar access. To what degree this was used a means of avoiding entering into said agreement is open to debate.

  • This debate and what Minister Julie Bishop wants to do, needs to go beyond the cosmetics. First, there needs to be an acknowledgement of the horrendous exploitation of Ni Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and other Melanesian people (“kanaks”) who were enslaved to clear the bush for the Queensland plantations a hundred years ago, and then, those who survived, were ignominiously expelled on racist grounds out of Australia (there is a great ABC documentary on this, airing in Fiji, over and over). It is their descendants who are now fighting for a “seasonal worker scheme” back to Australia. The Seasonal Worker Scheme, while to be welcomed, has to be on a large enough scale to make the inevitable horrendous costs of administration (more jobs for the boys) worth while. As for the 100 places for “holiday workers” supposedly being made available to PNG citizens, that is a bit laughable, compared to the 600,000 or so back-packers from Europe, who are hardly the poverty stricken people from the Pacific that need such work. Out of sight in this debate is the elephant in the room that hardly anyone talks about- the total failure over the last ten years, of Australia and NZ to push the Pacer Plus negotiations, under which many of these issues could have been consistently and sustainably integrated in a binding trade agreement, not subject to occasional lobby pressures from unions at election times, or ministerial whims. Of course, a lot of hot air (and work for many) continue to be generated about the “Pacific Plan” (read the recent Review Report).

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