Dignity the question for 'dirt poor' islanders


Guest WorkersThe Federal Opposition opposes the Government's Pacific Guest Worker scheme while it considers that a range of important questions remain unanswered. There are indeed many questions, but the opposition appears to be missing those relating to the rights of the Pacific workers themselves.

The plan, which involves a three year trial, follows many requests from both Pacific nations and potential employers in Australia. Pacific leaders see such schemes as a key response to the urgent challenge posed by rising sea levels.

President Anote Tong of Kiribati visited the Edmund Rice Centre in Sydney recently. He described labour access as 'one of the strategies that low-lying island nations are calling for, to help them prepare for the inevitable loss of land and livelihood that climate change is bringing them'.

Meanwhile federal member for Riverina Kay Hull, and other opposition MPs from rural areas, see the scheme as a welcome response to the acute shortage of willing workers available to the horticulture industry.

The usually compassionate opposition leader Brendan Nelson argued that Australia does not need 'dirt poor Pacific islanders'. Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Andrew Robb and Shadow Immigration Minister Chris Ellison spelled out the position in a statement that insisted that Australia should not rush into such a scheme without asking questions.

But the questions they ask are the wrong ones. They stem from fears that the guest workers would outstay their welcome. Notably absent is anything specifying a strategy to ensure that the workers are subject to fair pay and conditions consistent with the standard enjoyed by resident Australian workers.

Nor is there recognition that the scheme could be linked to a climate change response. On the contrary, they appear as out of touch as their leader, in their disingenuous concern not to 'deplete the pool of necessary young workers in villages in these Pacific nations'.

While employers argue that it is more costly to bring workers from overseas, grateful Pacific islanders are likely to be willing to work for less than award wages under conditions that do not meet regulatory requirements. Trade unions rightly insist that support for the scheme requires strict compliance to relevant labour pay and safety regulations, to ensure the treatment of guest workers equals that of resident workers.

Although they are desperate to find solutions for their people in the face of the rising sea level, Pacific island leaders expect nothing less. As President Tong said, 'We want to be able to move as dignified people ... to move wherever, if it should become necessary!'

It's one thing to ask questions, but another to ask the right questions.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is the editor of Eureka Street.

Flickr Kiribati image by Litchl.

Topic tags: michael mullins, President Anote Tong of Kiribati, Pacific Guest Worker scheme, workers' rights



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Existing comments

The Pacific islanders come to Australia, work on farms, then return home with a stack of money. Their islands disappear. What do they do then?

Why doesn't Mr Rudd give them permanent residence now?

Is he scared of the unions?

W Barry | 25 August 2008  

A most informative and thoughtful article. Clearly the Nelson led Coalition in opposition maintains a self-interested and chauvinistic approach which totally disregards the real world of today. It is important that this is exposed for what it is worth.

David Dyer | 25 August 2008  

Thank you, Michael for asking the right question and clarifying other issues as well!

Maryrose Dennehy | 25 August 2008  

I'd be interested in teasing out the pros and cons of Australia granting access and permanent residency in Australia as of right to native-born citizens of all or most of the Pacific island micro states. In one sense, they are in a similar position to our country towns; they are nice places to live but there is little industry and employment and many of the young people want to move to larger population centres to further their education and careers. Why shouldn't Pacific Islanders be allowed to come freely to Australian cities in the way that our rural people move to the same cities?

Warwick | 25 August 2008  

I am not in the least surprised by the Opposition's response to this issue as it reflects the former Howard Government's response to any one wishing to come to our country who does not fit the narrow definition of a suitable settler or temporary visitor. It is manifestly wrong and flies in the face of social justice to deny these people the right to share in our wealth. It is about time that we showed that we are a welcoming society, not a greedy self centred one.

Gavin O'Brien | 25 August 2008  

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