Guest-workers for Australia: win-win, token gesture or moral hazard?

Author:Millbank, Adrienne


The lobbying of Australian government to allow temporary unskilled guest-workers into Australia that has intensified over recent years has finally borne fruit. Australia's long-standing refusal of guest-workers has ended with announcements by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd at the Pacific Leaders' Forum in Niue, and Agricultural Minister Tony Burke in Australia, of a three-year pilot seasonal worker scheme for the horticultural industry. Under the proposed trial, 2500 workers from Kiribati, Tonga, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea will be given three-year visas.' These visas will allow entry for fruit-picking and other horticulture work in designated regional areas (initially possibly Swan Hill in Victoria and Griffith in New South Wales) for up to seven months in any 12 month period.

To allay concerns about taking jobs from Australian workers, participating employers will have to demonstrate 'reasonable' efforts to employ Australians, and agree to participate in training programs for Australians who are not 'job ready'. The seasonal guest-workers will be employed in accordance with Australian work standards, including awards, and will receive 'the same protection from exploitation' as Australian workers. Employers will have to pay half the return airfares and cover 'establishment and pastoral care costs involved in bringing low-skilled Pacific island workers to Australia'. The department of education, employment and workplace relations (DEEWR) will administer the pilot program, and an interagency steering committee comprising DEEWR and the departments of immigration and citizenship (DIAC), foreign affairs and trade, and agriculture, fisheries and forests will oversee its operation and consult with stakeholders, including unions.

To allay concerns about visa overstays the seasonal workers will not be allowed to bring their dependents and will be barred from applying for visas while in Australia (except for protection--that is, refugee-- visas). 'Very rigorous procedures and requirements' will apply to the selection of workers and conditions to be met in Australia.(2) The main 'incentive' for both employers and workers to obey the rules will be that workers will be allowed to return in future seasons. Compliance with visa conditions will be monitored by DIAC.

The pilot program is to commence next year and will be reviewed after 18 months. Other countries in the region, including East Timor, and other regions in Australia, have made it clear that they expect to be included.

Australia has jobs with no workers, neighbouring countries have workers with no jobs. (3)

The lobbyists are the governments of Pacific Island countries, Papua New Guinea and East Timor, sections of Australia's foreign affairs and aid communities, academics and journalists, Australian fruit and vegetable growers, the National Farmers' Federation and National Party politician Kay Hull. A sense of urgency and 'no alternative' has accompanied the announcement. Tony Burke has claimed that up to S700 million of fresh produce is being 'left to rot' on Australian farms through lack of reliable workers. He has also claimed that the scheme will provide 'vital employment experience, earnings and opportunities for the seasonal workers to learn valuable skills'. (4) Small fragile Pacific countries with high levels of unemployment and under-employment are said to be close to political crisis.

Proponents present the proposed guest-worker scheme as a win-win situation. It is a natural fit, whereby surplus workers from countries in our region in need of development assistance undertake harvesting work for employers in Australia in need of a reliable source of seasonal labour, to each country's advantage. The small-scale, cautious nature of the trial however serves as acknowledgement that there are costs and risks associated with guest-worker programs, as well as the obvious benefits.

Costs, risks and hazards

In many ways it's similar to old styled indentured labour, or bonded labour. These workers don 't have the right to stay in Australia. (5)

Proponents of the scheme argue that Australia already runs a guest-worker type program, through its temporary long-stay employer-sponsored 457 visas. (While there are skill requirements for this visa, concessional arrangements for regional areas have allowed employers to sponsor workers for jobs at lower skill levels, such as truck-driving.) Proponents point out that times have changed; the migration program currently has a strong labour-market focus, and temporary migration has become more important.

However there are crucial differences between the approximately 500,000 temporary residents with work rights in Australia, and the guest-workers who will enter under the government's pilot scheme. The guest-workers will be confined to seasonal agricultural work. They will not be allowed to bring their families. Guest-worker programs are designed to exclude the workers from integrating into the broader community; the fact of their leaving when the work is done is what distinguishes program success from failure. People on 457 visas and other temporary residents working in Australia, such as overseas students, can bring their partners and children, they can change employers (in the case of 457 visa-holders, if they find another employer-sponsor), and they can live where they choose. And they are able to apply to stay in Australia; indeed, they are encouraged to stay, particularly in regional areas.

The situation will be very different for the guest workers in the new program. Indeed by their very nature, it is easy to argue that programs so constituted are exploitative.

Every guest-worker program--everywhere--has failed. (6)

While there is a broad consensus in developed economies about the need for and benefits of skilled immigration, including temporary skilled migration, there is less agreement about low-skilled guest-worker programs. Experience with such programs in Western Europe and the USA in the past has been that short-term benefits turned into long-term problems, as the programs expanded and the 'guests' stayed. Researchers suggest that new-style tightly controlled niche programs can avoid the failures of the past, however a great deal of government involvement and intervention will be required. (7) In the case of Australia, the limitations, costs and restrictions involved in a tightly managed scheme, such as is proposed, could mean that expectations in neither the sending nor receiving countries are met. And the controls and restrictions imposed on the workers could be seen as unfair and discriminatory.

The controls and restrictions could also prove difficult to enforce. The Recognised Seasonal Employers scheme in New Zealand, on which the Australian pilot scheme is to be based, was introduced in 2007. It has been generally deemed successful in its first year. However, there have been problems. According to a Pacific Island News Service report, of 70 workers from Kiribati, most of the 40 who have returned home are 'struggling' and in debt after being given little work or pay by New Zealand farmers. The workers complained about over-crowding in the accommodation provided in New Zealand. And New Zealand immigration officials have confirmed that...

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