The National Farmers Federation (NFF) argues that foreign aid funds should be used to support domestic horticulture by supplying Pacific Islander labourers to farmers. The NFF’s visa scheme is an insult to Pacific Islanders, doesn’t support Australian innovation and fails rural communities.
The proposal for the NFF’s Workforce from Abroad Employment Scheme said that the horticultural industry will require at least 16,000 new employees as that sector’s employment, hit by the drought, recovers to 2002 levels. From this small observation the NFF report makes a giant leap into Australia’s regional foreign policy. Publications by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute have made cautious calls for Pacific Island labour mobility, saying that Islanders need to expand their working opportunities and that Australia has a role to play.
Yes - but not like this. Not the way the NFF has suggested.
The NFF has asked for a working visa that allows Pacific Islanders to only work in the horticultural industry, a subsector of the wider agricultural industry. This is an insult to Pacific Islanders. The NFF wants to lock an ethnic group into one special category. In other words if you’re a Pacific Islander you pick fruit.
The NFF wants funding for its Pacific Visa Scheme to be supplied from Australia’s current aid budget. They view their visa scheme as aid. Labour mobility is about trade, not aid.
Special category visas should not be gifted to the Pacific Islands. The Australian Government needs to show some respect to island nations and negotiate proper trade agreements. Pacific Island nations that want their citizens to be employed in Australia need to trade access to their own labour markets as part of any agreement. Perhaps some nations could open up their labour markets to Australians first. This might be a symbolic gesture, but regional labour mobility must be a two-way street, even if the traffic is one-way.
The NFF’s report sidesteps technical innovation. Its report says that “... labour accounts for around 50 per cent of the costs of production” in the horticultural industry. At a time when other industries are encouraged to innovate and add to Australia’s intellectual capital, the NFF argues that its industry just needs more people. The NFF should be helping development of mechanised solutions for farmers of the future, not reducing the incentive for long-term innovation by introducing more people.
If labour costs have been such a problem for so long new research must be done on new harvest machinery. New crop protection systems should be developed. This is important work for the future. It needs to be done. The government cannot allow seasonal labour visas to stall innovation in horticulture.
The NFF’s scheme doesn’t do enough for rural communities. The report mentions that there are significant numbers of underemployed or unemployed Australians available to fill these new seasonal jobs. It says: “In any event, groups representing the interests of Australian workers, whilst more than readily claiming to protect the employment opportunities for Australians, have single-handedly failed to advance candidates, adopt measures and implement policies to place them in the huge number of available jobs”. The NFF needs to spend more time adopting polices to reach these local workers. Many workers have suffered through the drought. They are ready to work now that the drought has broken.
When the seasonal demand for labour is high local workers have been supported by a growing number of working holiday makers. These working tourists are available through a successful program that has expanded the rural labour pool. It is an existing visa program.
An expansion of this program means that Australian tax dollars won’t have to fund a completely new visa scheme. The added advantage of the working holiday visa system is that its workers bring money with them. This is a much better worker for rural communities as these workers will spend the cash they bring from home and then go on to spend all the cash they earn out on the farm.
The big picture is that we should continue to work toward proper Pacific labour mobility. We should make the Australian labour market more open to Pacific Island workers and expect that Pacific labour markets should be more open to Australians. The NFF’s proposal is a short-term false start when long-term agreements need consideration. With a proper trade agreement we will all benefit. If we follow the NFF’s scheme we will all pay.
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