In recent years Australia has become increasingly aware of the developmental benefits that it can provide to Pacific Island states by opening up its labor market to their citizens. This access has primarily focused on the agricultural industry. The Seasonal Workers Program, initiated in 2012, and the recently introduced Pacific Labor Scheme for microstate citizens have offered opportunities for increased income and skills development that is not presently available in these countries. So far Tongans have been the most enthusiastic adopters of the program, with an increasing number of Ni-Vanuatu also becoming present on Australian farms.
Recent analysis from the Lowy Institute — a Sydney-based foreign policy think tank — concluded that were Australia to further enhance its current labor market access and migrations programs for Pacific Island states, the income of these countries could quadruple, and there would be a $20 billion boost to the region’s economy.
However, serious cases of mistreatment of Pacific Island workers by Australian employers threaten to undermine the ability of these programs to achieve these positive outcomes, as well as undermine Australia’s position within the Pacific. A recent parliamentary report titled “Hidden in Plain Sight” recommended an urgent review of Australia’s visa regime for foreign workers in order to prevent the continued poor conditions, exploitation, and under payment that many have been experiencing. There have been 12 deaths over the past five years.
The report recommends that the Australian government establish legislation along the lines of the United Kingdom’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act, which created a compensation scheme for those who had been victims of debt bondage and labor exploitation, also making it a requirement for companies to provide public transparency of their supply chains to demonstrate they were free of these kind of abuses.
Another key recommendation is a review of visa conditions workers have in Australia, and the suggestion that visas tied to an employer be eliminated, enabling people to leave abusive employment without threatening their stay in the country. This has the potential to create tension with the agricultural industry, as the Seasonal Workers Program has become the preferred source of labor over the Working Holiday Visa (utilized by mainly young Europeans and East Asians) due to the condition that workers are tied to an employer. This is especially the case on horticultural farms with longer harvest seasons, which require more consistent labor than transient backpackers provide.
Pacific Island states have pushed hard to gain greater access to Australia’s labor market. This was one of the key components of the recently signed Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER Plus) regional free trade agreement. Australia has gradually acquiesced to these demands, incrementally providing labor access for longer periods of time, and loosening regional restrictions on work. With a native population unwilling to engage in agricultural labor, the mutual benefits have become increasingly obvious.
However, it is important that Australia does not take advantage of the need for Pacific Islanders to access Australia’s labor market. The seriousness with which the government takes the parliamentary report will indicate just how committed it is to furthering its engagement in the Pacific. It should become a high priority for the Australian government to create effective structures around its labor mobility programs to prevent further abuses from occurring.
Despite the abuses detailed in the report, there are instances where the labor mobility scheme operates as it should. When operating well, there are not just significant economic benefits to the individual workers, their families, and the sending countries, but a significant cultural exchange that can foster greater understanding of Pacific Island states in Australia. The promotion and empowerment of farmers that have demonstrated kindness and hospitality toward their workers should be part of the government’s response to the report.
The Australian government now faces the challenge of how it can repair the reputation of the program within the Pacific, and guarantee improved conditions and treatment of people who choose to utilize the program. While Australia’s food security now relies on the success of the Seasonal Workers Program, its wider interests are also tied to a wealthier and more developed Pacific region. Rectifying Australia’s reputation is also essential in order to maintain its regional influence in light of growing Chinese influence in the Pacific.
It is therefore an imperative that Australia takes the “Hidden in Plain Sight” report very seriously, and is able to implement structures that prevent exploitation and abuse. Australia has been slow to understand the importance of labor market access for Pacific Island states, and its lax approach to the idea can be deemed a factor in these cases of worker mistreatment. The hope is that the unfortunate details of this report will inspire a positive shift in thinking.