BY BEN BILUA
Red tape and a new seasonal work visa for people from Asian nations are threatening opportunities for Solomon Islanders to work in Australia.
In June, Australian agriculture Minister David Littleproud, announced a new ‘seasonal agricultural workforce visa’ for citizens of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) countries. It would be based on the working holiday-maker (or backpacker) visa which has much lighter regulation than visas currently offered to Pacific workers.
“There is desperate shortage of labour all around the country, not necessarily just in agriculture but more broadly,” Canberra-based Professor of Finance, Satish Chand, told Pacific journalists on Tuesday.
However, Australia’s tough visa policies and requirements are pushing employers away from hiring Pacific workers under the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) and the separate Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) for technically or vocationally qualified workers, experts say.
Regulations to allow commencement of the new agricultural visa for people from ASEAN nations have not been drawn up yet.
“There are great Pacific Island workers ready to come and work in Australia, but we’ve made the system very difficult,” said Caleb Jarvis, Trade and Investment Commissioner, Pacific Trade Invest Australia.
“We can’t then turn around and offer ASEAN easier conditions to entry into Australia.
Commissioner Jarvis said opening up Australia’s labour market to Pacific Islands is absolutely necessary to help the Pacific economies recover after COVID.
“That’s the one lever Australia can pull up almost immediately and open the gates, because Australia is currently going through critical labour shortages across most industry sectors in metropolitan areas and rural areas.
“So, this is a great time for Australia to step up and really show their commitment to the Pacific,” Jarvis said.
Professor Satish Chand from the University of New South Wales agrees.
He believes there should be a Pacific-wide visa for workers with technical and vocational skills and wants to see Pacific workers given the same access as New Zealanders to work in Australia.
“If we were to be a real value, a real family, then I think we should have much freer mobility of workers throughout the region,” he said.
Prof Chand says the initiative would be of particular value to young people as the region charts a path out of the COVID economic crisis.
He is calling for recognition of technical and vocational qualifications as the basis for a Pacific Skills Visa that could be implemented across Pacific Forum countries.
“We have to have people who are trained as electricians, mechanics and carpenters be able to work abroad as qualified tradespeople.
“But more importantly, people who are already upskilled, we want recognition of their qualifications abroad, so this has to be the job of the government.
On the agricultural visa, Professor Chand believes the problem is too many visas with different rules creating a race to the bottom.
“I think there’s a lot of exploitation that takes place of our workers,” he said
“It’s partly because of all the red tape linked to the Seasonal Worker Programme with approved employers having a complete monopoly on the workers,”
“What happens is that our seasonal workers compete with …working holiday-makers. And then they also compete with undocumented workers – these are illegals.
“And when you have this competition across visa classes, what you have is a race to the bottom.
“So, if you have a worker who’s undocumented, who’s illegal, who who’s willing to work at $10 an hour, then that sets the benchmark for everybody else,”
“I, for one, am in favour of just a one agricultural visa for everybody,’ Professor Chand said.
Last month, Secretary General of Pacific Islands Forum, Henry Puna stressed that Pacific nations are concerned that Pacific workers could be squeezed out of the Australian market by workers from Asia.
He said Pacific heads of mission in Canberra had expressed these concerns to the Australian government.
Seasonal work is seen as one of the most effective ways to relieve the economic pressure COVID is placing on Pacific people and economies.
On Tuesday, Pacific officials began a series of online meetings leading up to next week Forum economic and trade ministers’ meetings next week.
In his opening address, Secretary General Puna told officials: “This meeting is an opportunity for us to have a robust collective discussion on forward- looking and innovative, collective solutions that can inspire and propel economic recovery across our Blue Pacific Continent.”