Pacific Worker Scheme Sparks Unemployment Debate

Pacific worker scheme sparks unemployment debate

Posted Tue Feb 17, 2009 5:39pm AEDT
Updated Tue Feb 17, 2009 6:27pm AEDT

The first contingent of unskilled workers has arrived in Australia. (ABC)

The first group of unskilled workers flown in to pick fruit on Australian farms has raised questions about importing labourers amidst fears of growing unemployment in Australia.

A group of 50 Tongans has arrived in Australia as the first contingent of unskilled workers under the Federal Government's Pacific guest workers scheme.

Dr Bob Birrell, from the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University, says the pilot program was announced last August, before the global financial crash.

“This decision was taken at a time when most decision-makers thought there would be a long-term shortage of labour in Australia and that clearly is not going to be the case in the foreseeable future,” he said.

Dr Birrell says the Government should be doing more to encourage Australians to move to areas of workforce need, but he does not see the Government scrapping the program.

“I don't think they're going to do that. There was a decision made and the bureaucracy's in process, but I would hope that once this trial is complete, that's the last we hear of it,” he said.

Some of his concerns have been echoed by the Federal Opposition's immigration spokeswoman, Sharman Stone.

“We do hope the Rudd Labor Government is keeping a close eye on locals unemployed in those areas so we're not simply replacing jobs for locals with jobs for imported labour,” she said.

Scheme safeguards

Tongan newspaper editor Kalafi Moala says many Tongans are applying for the 2,500 seasonal guest worker visas now made available by the Australian Government.

“You're looking at a huge source of finance for a lot of these families, because these are people that are going out and they haven't had any jobs here,” she said.

But Paul Howes, the national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, says the Pacific Islanders who arrive under the scheme this year will not be taking jobs that Australians need.

“You're not talking about huge amounts of workers and you're talking about a sector that this year still has a shortfall of 100,000 workers,” Mr Howes said.

He added that the Government may need to review the number of seasonal guest worker visas it offers but says the scheme has safeguards to ensure locals are not disadvantaged.

“It ensures the participation of local communities in approving the employers who get this labour,” he said.

“Now if there is a circumstance where the local community have an excess of unemployed workers who want that work and where Australians are being turned away, then those employers will not get the permits to be able to use this labour.”

Social justice advocate Jill Finnane from the Edmund Rice Centre says while the Federal Government works to handle the local impact of the economic crisis, it must not neglect its neighbours.

“The Pacific Islanders have been asking for this for a long long time,” Ms Finnane said.

“They have a great need, huge unemployment, especially among young people in their countries, and the remittances that they send back to their country are absolutely hugely important in taking them from a level of poverty that we can't even imagine here in Australia.

“So, I do think we do need to find work for our unemployed here in Australia, but I don't think that many of the unemployed here in Australia are actually looking for fruit-picking work. I just don't see that there's a competing issue here.”

Workers from Vanuatu and Kiribas have also been invited to apply for visas under the pilot scheme.

Based on a report by Meredith Griffiths for PM.