Australia Mulls Seasonal Migrant Labor Scheme
By Christine Inglis
September 1, 2003
An Australian Senate committee is proposing that agricultural workers from the Pacific Islands be granted special seasonal access to Australia, in hopes that short-term economic gains for all sides will boost long-term regional stability and security.
The Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Trade proposed the special admissions policy in a report issued in August, after agreeing with business leaders that access to "adequate" supplies of agricultural labor would benefit Australia. The possible benefits apparently outweighed concerns expressed by the government's immigration department about the introduction of a "guest worker" program, the move from non-discriminatory selection towards admission of unskilled workers from one region in particular, and the potential for workers to overstay their visas.
The committee proposal takes place against a background of Australian labor leaders' discussions with Fiji unions about some type of scheme along these lines. The proposal also recalls the 19th century practice of "blackbirding," which involved the use of Pacific Island contract labor in Australian tropical agriculture.
If adopted through a modification of immigration regulations, the proposal would mark a major change in access for Pacific migrants, not least from Papua New Guinea, Australia's nearest neighbor. Many Pacific Island nations support the proposal in hopes that the migrant workers will send home remittances, despite concerns that emigration will drain away their human resources. These countries, whose economies are often precariously dependent on agriculture, mining, and tourism, also see the potential for economic benefit through training and skills transfers.
Limited economic opportunities, increasingly supplemented by political unrest, are driving emigration from many of these nations (for more information, see Country Profiles for Fiji and the Federated States of Micronesia). Since the 1960s, there has been substantial emigration from all three Pacific regions—Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia—with the most extreme case being the state of Niue, whose population in New Zealand is three times greater than in the country itself.
Underlying the committee's proposal are concerns about this economic and political instability and, ultimately, its impact on regional security. Security concerns have already led to an international force, with Australians shouldering most of the burden, being invited into the Solomon Islands to end several years of armed ethnic conflict. In addition, policymakers are concerned that Pacific Islanders will continue to overstay their visas in Australia if economic development lags in their home countries.
With conventional development aid seen as an insufficient guarantee of the stability needed to head off such problems, policymakers have hit on linking migration and development through schemes such as the special admission of agricultural workers. The committee's solution, as set forth in their report, is a "Pacific Economic and Political Community" intended to address the economic and security problems of the region. Over time, this community would establish a common currency, labor market, and budgetary and fiscal standards.
The Pacific Islands Forum meeting in August showed that the region's governments are cautious about Australia's role and its renewed attempt at exerting leadership. However, overt criticism has not extended to the proposals for greater labor mobility within the region, or to the proposal for seasonal migration to Australia.
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