The Pacific Labour Scheme needs a pathway to permanency

Timorese workers living in Warrnambool, Victoria as part of the Pacific Labour Scheme (Credit: SEFOPE, TL)
Written by Michael Rose

In the 90s, travelling from Melbourne to the family farm, grandad liked to break the journey at an orchard/warehouse called Dellios Apples. He saw it, I think, as a chance to acquire fruit and educate us pampered city kids as to where it came from. We could have anything we wanted, so long as it was apples, which we would select and have weighed by a pair of older men who would continue to chat to each other in Italian as they did so. ‘New Australians’, grandad would say as we hauled the fruit back to the car, though with a frisson of bemused irony. It had been decades since there was much new about any of them.

The term has fallen from use, but was current from the 1950s and reflected the spirit of that time, and the fifty-odd years that followed it, clearly enough. For all its highly problematic aspects (the most glaring one being that until 1975 was overtly racist) immigration then envisaged those who fled hard times in Europe, and later Southeast Asia, not as ‘guest workers’ but people whose agricultural skills and capacity for hard work were aspects of what they had to contribute to the future of the country.

Current policies focused on ameliorating regional labour shortages no longer embody this spirit, and it is worth taking a moment to reflect why this is.

One reason is that over the past two decades, migration has become a political football. While there are people around who may remember voting in elections not set to a backdrop of xenophobic dog-whistling, as I dolefully contemplate turning forty I’m not one of them.

This dog-whistling (ironically often the work of self-proclaimed advocates of rural and working-class Australia), although no doubt expedient for winning elections, distracts from a hard truth – regional Australia needs migrants now as much as it did in the past. Possibly more.

And yet at the same time as we acknowledge this through seeking to grow the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) and the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS), we also have taken the permanent settlement of these workers off the table, instead sliding into a middle ground where workers and employers whose strong preference is stability and continuity are subject to an oft-lamented regimen of oversight by a swirl of government departments along with the uncertainties of regular and costly international travel.

I spent much of 2019 speaking to Timorese people involved in both the PLS and the SWP, and the differences between the perspectives of those within them are striking.

Those in Australia with the SWP are, by and large, focused on getting home. They very often have young children, a half-finished house, a kios in the hands of cousins and a mental calendar of which they eagerly tick off the days.

The PLS on the other hand is a completely different animal. It brings out people from nine Pacific island countries and Timor-Leste for up to three years to work in non-seasonal regional industries, after which there is (officially) no prospect of them being able to stay. There are around 700 of them so far, undertaking work within essential primary industries that Australians just don’t want to do – most notably in abattoirs slaughtering livestock and then processing their meat.

I’ve spent time with a cohort of PLS workers from Timor-Leste in Warrnambool over the past six months or so, and it’s been fascinating to watch them settle in. You can hear the slight Australian inflection creeping into their English. They have learned to cope with and give back the sometimes rough banter of a blue-collar workplace. They talk of buying cars and perhaps of eventually going back to uni. The zeitgeist within the community is that of settling here permanently. Like those in the SWP they often too have children, but they dream of seeing them grow up in Australia with all the advantages that entails.

‘Won’t you miss Timor?’, I would ask. In their language they regularly refer to it as the Rai Doben – the Beloved Land.

‘We can always go back and visit’, they would say.

Another aspect of my conversations with the Timorese of Warrnambool worth keeping in mind is how many of them mentioned that they had considered going to work in the United Kingdom but were glad they had been able to come to Australia instead. Of whatever practical import it may or may not be for them, our shared history and status as neighbours means something. It is a sentiment Australian policymakers would do well to keep in mind.

What we will have in PLS workers who make it through their first three years is a cohort of people who are ready to settle in Australia. They will have established roots and routines. They will have acquired much-needed skills. They will have demonstrated the fortitude to work in a way few others are willing to. As permanent residents and highly experienced workers they will command higher wages than they do under the PLS, but for any regional employer this will be offset by the ease of managing them as regular employees rather than as part of a tightly regulated government program. They are not, having settled and acquired skills that are suited to regional Australia, likely to ‘flee’ to the city. They will, however, bring new life to regional communities that are crying out for it.

There are plenty of things to feel uneasy about when it comes to Australia’s record on race and migration; however, the notion, seemingly out of fashion, that people coming to work in regional Australia might be able to make a life here rather than just service a gap in the labour market is not one of them. It is time for policymakers to take inspiration from this old idea and build a path to permanent residency into the PLS.

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Michael Rose

Dr Mike Rose is a Research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre.

10 Comments

  • Hi Maun Mike Rose, we have glad if we will become the permanent residence! I am as ex- swp was comparing the Seasonal Worker Program with Pacific Labour Scheme was a better PLS program. The reason why? Pacific Labour Scheme is all facility and treatment according to Australian workplace laws, I am so pleased to be part of the Pacific Labour Scheme get new experience such as culture, rights and religion in the community we are living. Likewise, get enough money sends back home to support my families for schooling, in addition, doing a small business to contribute to the development of our country.

    Obrigado Maun, ba article ida nee.

    • Hey Polly, thanks for sharing your experiences. It’s interesting you feel like your treatment in the PLS is better than in the SWP. How so (oinsaa)? As far as I can see with the SWP there is a lot of variation from place to place. Many are very good. A few are not. There are supposed to be systems in place (tuir lolos) to ensure that everyone in the SWP gets the pay and conditions they are supposed to, but whether they always work is another matter. Sorti diak ho ita nia bisnis. Hau hein atu hasoru fali imi kalu hau kunjungi.

  • This program very interesting for young people in Timor leste but very hard to apply base my experience two years I worked in Hillwood farm in Tasmania Australia but two times I submit my dicuments didn’t pass and send me back that you application is late but I am always early submitbase on that I feel why it’s happen

    • Thanks for being in touch Daniel. The application process for these things can be very frustrating, as someone who has spent time unemployed myself I very much sympathise. Do you have any ideas on how the process could be improved? I feel like the root of the problem is Timor-Leste’s economic and demographic situation. Something like 30,000 reach working age each year. Most of these people want paying jobs. This puts SEFOPE in a very difficult position when selecting people for programs like the PLS. There are just too many good candidates.

  • Absolutely agree that Permanent Residency should be an option for our Pacific neighbours who have already proven their worth and commitment to Australia, Australians – and helped in the success & increased productivity of those Australian businesses who employ them.
    They already have a track record in Australia since arriving under the 403 visa programs. This is a fantastic way to prove what amazing role models as new Australian residents they would be.
    Pacific Islanders will never leave their country behind. They will always send remittances home to aid the extended family and villages no matter how long they stay in Australia. I am an employer of workers under both the SWP & the PLS and our rural region of Australia is far better off having these workers call our small town home whilst they are with us. They are respected for their work ethic, loved and welcomed by our local community and will always hold a place in the hearts of their new extended families.

    • Kerry, thanks for your positive input. There have been concerns in some circles that opening up a pathway to permanent settlement in the PLS might lure away talented people who are needed at home – ‘brain drain’ is the term that gets used. I however am inclined to agree with you that Pacific/TL workers settled in Australia are coming from places where ties to land and kin run deep, and will likely continue to contribute even if given the chance to resettle in Australia.

  • The PLS and SWP workers deserve to be given permanent residency in Australia. They are not just there to work in Australian farmlands, but they are developing Australia’s economy in the Agriculture sector. Even in times of disasters like bushfires and floods, they are helping a part of Australia through fundraising and evacuation as argued by Rochelle Lee-Bailey in her blog post on 17 January 2020. In other words, they are playing the roles of being humanitarians and farmers. The result of their hard work on farmlands are fresh produce, fruit, vegetables and wine that are on the shelves of the biggest shopping malls across Australia and some are imported in huge quantities by Pacific Island Countries.

    They give effect to Australian Foreign Policy in the Pacific especially on Trade thus they would do so in the future. Tongans being the rapidly growing group, as argued by Professor Howes, the number of other Pacific Islanders would increase in the future as well with an intention to contribute meaningfully to Australia’s economy. The PLS and SWP workers want to live in Australia and be part of Australia and as the Timorese say, ‘we would always go back and visit’. They want to be visitors to their Rai Doben – The beloved land.

    Remember, Barrack Obama, when he was still the president, ‘visited’ Kenya NOT as a Kenyan but as an American and that’s exactly what those Timorese meant and I guess other Pacific Islanders would say the same thing.

    The SWP and PLS deserve permanent residency or citizenship which the policymakers in Australia need to consider.

    • Hi Moses, thanks for your comment. All great points. There are many Australians today whose ancestors originally come here to work in agriculture. They have made Australia a better place, and have very often been able to help relatives and friends in their home countries. Of course what a pathway to permanency in the PLS would look like we don’t yet know (the SWP, as it is about seasonal labour, is a seperate issue I think) but it is certainly something that needs to be considered.

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