Pacific Workers are Dudded on Visas
While munching on one of his favourite strawberries last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced changes to the backpacker and Pacific workers’ visas to meet the seasonal labour shortages on farms.
This enables Australian farmers to compete with New Zealand for workers. New Zealand recently announced an increase in its quota for seasonal workers to 12,850 from 8,500.
Offshore work has given a boost to Pacific economies like Tonga, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands as well as East Timor.
As the Australian agricultural sector booms as a consequence of the free trade agreements with Asia the inflow of income from these expatriate workers is likely to make a significant contribution to economic development in the region.
The extension of the period that these workers can remain in Australia up to nine months will significantly increase the value of seasonal work however the visas are still bound up in red tape that impose unfair difficulties on Pacific workers.
Pacific workers are bound to one employer so that when work on that farm is finished they cannot move on to another farm and work until their nine months runs out: they have to return home as soon as the first contract is completed.
In contrast backpackers can stay for three years and are free to move from one job to another.
Moreover employers don’t have to go through the rigmarole for backpackers that they have to go through with Pacific workers.
As a consequence the bulk of seasonal work is being done by backpackers. For every 250 Pacific workers employed on Australian farms there are 1,000 backpackers.
This contrasts with New Zealand where there are 3,000 Pacific workers for every 1,000 backpackers.
The leadership in the Pacific is backing the National Party’s proposal for an agricultural visa that would allow Pacific workers to come to Australia for an extended period of time.
At the moment there is very high unemployment in countries like the Solomon Islands, particularly youth unemployment.
However the downside of the agricultural visa is that it may provide a permanent source of employment for workers whose skills may be essential to the development of their home countries.
At the moment the huge differentials between wages in the Pacific and Australia mean that the latter is attractive for highly educated people from the Pacific to take jobs for which they are overqualified, in Australia.
This is a very sensitive issue that will have to be negotiated with the Pacific leaders rather than imposed on them because it meets the economic imperatives of the agricultural sector.