13 August 2008

Australia's guest worker scheme raising concerns

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is expected to make an announcement this week at the Pacific Island leaders' forum in Niue about a proposed guest worker scheme. The pilot programme, which mimics New Zealand’s guest worker scheme, is the Government’s solution to the damaging labour shortage in regional Australia, but some have questioned the knock-on effects it may cause.

The Government is proposing to allow thousands of Pacific Islanders to work in the horticultural regions in Victoria (Swan Hill, Mildura, and Robinvale), Queensland (Emerald) and NSW (Griffith) to save the $7 billion per year horticultural industry, reports Stock Journal.  The industry is suffering from an increasing shortage in labour and is looking to outside sources to move to Australia to maintain high levels of production.

Unions in Australia have welcomed the proposal, provided the Government ensures local workers are not losing job opportunities as a result, the workers are paid full wages and have good conditions.  However, the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union has voiced a concern that the conditions and wages of local workers should be addressed before providing Australian visas for Pacific Islanders, and that the scheme is an excuse to use cheap labour.

The National Farmers' Federation (NFF) Workplace Relations Manager Denita Wawn said the shortfall is existent because Australians do not want labour-intensive jobs, and that the proposed scheme will work well to fill the job shortage.  She also told the Stock Journal the overseas workers would be paid generously, receiving $800-$1000 per week, and that the farmers are willing to pay the extra $1.46 per hour to use Pacific Islanders.

Concerns over the source of the labour has also blighted the proposal; Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Andrew Robb told Sky News last week the trial scheme will affect relations with Indonesia and The Philippines who provide Australia with a large bulk of overseas labour, as they have high unemployment rates and population surplus.  Mr Robb feels that by using only Pacific Islanders in the scheme the country will be endorsing a discriminatory immigration policy.

"The Government has been examining New Zealand's seasonal labour policy, the Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme, and it is appropriate we learn from New Zealand's wisdom and experience when thinking about the possibility of a pilot program in Australia," he said.

Jerf van Beek, Horticulture NZ National Co-ordinator, told Marlborough Express the Australian Government needs to work closely with New Zealand in order to ensure the programme’s success.  Mr van Beek told the newspaper a system needs to be devised so that both countries can coordinate with each other and not source workers from the same countries.

Mr Rudd has not indicated which countries will be included in the programme, but that 5,000 Pacific Islanders will be given Australian visas to work in the country for six to twelve months.

The Australian Visa Bureau is an independent consulting company specialising in helping people apply for an Australia visa.

Article by Jessica Bird, Australian Visa Bureau.

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