Facing similar youth bulges in their populations, and a paucity of jobs, South Pacific leaders - notably Papua New Guinea's Sir Michael Somare and Fiji's Laisenia Qarase - have been lobbying the region's wealthy states to open up their labor markets. Issuing short-term visas for unskilled workers is not a new idea. But with Australia and New Zealand seeking closer engagement in the Pacific, many of the region's respected voices feel a guest-worker scheme is ripe for a trial. "We have a lot of people looking for work, and they are not lazy," says Rick Hou, governor of the Central Bank of Solomon Islands. "Australia and New Zealand don't have enough workers to pick fruit and work on farms. It's a perfect fit. If the respective governments could find a way to do it, it would be a win-win solution." The Australian farming lobby agrees.
As Hou sees it, guest workers would send remittances back to the Solomons and return home with improved skills. Well-designed temporary labor and permanent migration schemes, he argues, offer the best long-term options for poor and rich economies alike: "For one thing, Australia won't need to keep paying aid money, and it will get the benefit of the labor." At last week's Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Papua New Guinea, the 16 member states agreed to an extensive reform plan on economic integration, governance and security. But Prime Minister John Howard, reflecting longstanding opposition to guest workers, would not be swayed on a proposal to allow seasonal labor into Australia. "We apply an open, non-discriminatory immigration policy, and people from the Pacific Island area come in increasing numbers," Howard said. "We have always had a preference for permanent settlement."
At face value, Howard's reasoning appears questionable. Of course there is discrimination. The skilled have a better chance than the unskilled of migrating to Australia. Those laden with assets can enter as "business migrants." Australia already allows European and American backpackers to do seasonal farm work. (Howard is on much firmer ground here; backpackers and guest workers are as different as apples and bananas.) But it is also true that Pacific Islanders are coming in greater numbers to Australia, some after a long holiday in New Zealand. While the money they wire back to the islands is no doubt welcomed by their families, these exiles are among their countries' best educated and most entrepreneurial citizens. A recent World Bank study found that more than half of all tertiary graduates from Fiji, Tonga and Samoa were working overseas.
Despite the pleas and pressure from the other leaders, Howard did not crack. He pointed to the problems of visa overstayers and the possibility that guest workers would be seen, and treated, as second-class labor. In Europe and Canada, unscrupulous operators have exploited seasonal foreign workers. And Australia's trade unions, already under siege, would strongly resist any attempts to further erode pay and working conditions. The country still carries the baggage of the White Australia Policy and the use of kidnapped South Sea islanders as laborers in Queensland's sugar plantations. As well, Howard does not want to create new sources of migrant lobbying or industry special pleading. How long will it be before other sectors start making the same arguments as farmers? Then consider the politics, let alone the economics, of bringing in foreign workers at the same time as indigenous Australians are being nudged into work-for-welfare schemes.
Free-market hardliners argue that by admitting guest workers, Australia would take the pressure off Pacific leaders to reform their economies and improve their governance. Certainly, Australia's development (and security) ideal must be to help create stable and self-sustaining neighbors. To this end, Howard has announced that Australia will fund a regional technical college. Still, labor mobility remains on the Forum's formal agenda. Despite the myriad objections, a country of 10 million workers can afford at least to test a scheme for a few thousand temporary foreign workers, incorporating lessons from other Western countries. It may or may not bear fruit. But given the malaise of Australia's neighbors, it's worth planting a few new seeds.