Doors Opening For Guest-Worker Plan

Doors opening for guest-worker plan

Daniel Flitton
The Age
March 31, 2008


A Pacific Islander guest workers' scheme is on the cards.

An industry survey will identify skills shortages.

Guest workers are to return home at end of their stay.

AUSTRALIA is a step closer to accepting Pacific Island workers under a temporary arrangement to meet labour shortages.

In a signal that the Government is looking to ease immigration laws and allow Pacific Islanders to work in Australia, parliamentary secretary for Pacific Island affairs Duncan Kerr has challenged Australian industry to show precisely where more workers are needed.

“We're interested in assessing demand from employers in Australia to make certain that there is real demand, that people are not simply looking for a way to exploit a workforce that can be paid less than Australians,” Mr Kerr said.

Farmers in particular have expressed concern that a shortage of workers taking on seasonal jobs, such as fruit picking, could hamper the chances for recovery after recent heavy rains.

The National Farmers Federation believes nearly 100,000 jobs need to be filled across the agricultural sector.

Denita Wawn, NFF's general manager of workplace relations, welcomed Mr Kerr's call and said her organisation would release a study later this week detailing the labour needs in rural Australia.

“Our predominant focus will always be ensuring we can get Australians into these jobs,” Mrs Wawn said.

“Nevertheless, we believe there will be a shortfall, and hence we need to look at immigration options.”

Pacific Islands countries have also pushed for the introduction of a guest worker scheme in Australia as a way for Pacific workers to earn money that would be sent back home to support the local economy.

Mr Kerr is in Vanuatu today and will outline a new survey showing economic activity across the Pacific is expected to grow on average by 4.5% in 2008.

Launching a centre in Sydney last week to study the Pacific region, he said the Government is examining a guest workers scheme now being trialled in New Zealand and would raise the issue with Pacific Island leaders during a meeting in Niue later this year.

He stressed that only a seasonal scheme is being considered at this stage, with Pacific Islander workers expected to return home at the end of their stay. But Mrs Wawn said the vast majority of farming jobs are full-time. “The guest worker is going to serve a particular niche need in the seasonal horticultural market, but we actually need more workers in long-term positions,” she said.

She said the Government should also look at giving those guest workers who want to make a career in the industry a chance to become permanent residents in Australia.