Skip to content

The Exclusion of Pacific Island Workers, again [Islands Business Oct 2006]

28/03/2012

ThroughoutAustralia, employers face shortages of unskilled labour.  They wish to employ unskilled Pacific Islanders, who are more than willing to work.

But the Australian Government rejects this free market meeting of demand and supply.

And ahead of the Forum Ministers meeting inFiji, a depressing propaganda exercise is being conducted by AusAID and Australian academics to justify this refusal.

AusAID has published a glossy Pacific 2020 which is essential reading not just for what it covers, but for what it totally ignores with respect to current Australia-Pacific relations and possibilities for the future.

And Professor Helen Hughes (with Gaurav Sodhi) has published a Report  which boldly claims the title “Should Australia andNew Zealandopen their doors to Guest Workers from the Pacific: costs and benefits”.    The “benefits” only get a pathetic cursory treatment, while Hughes single-mindedly attacks any possibility of aPacificIslandguest worker scheme.

Is there an internal Machiavellian political angle to Howard’s opposition?

WhileAustraliain its race relations has progressed somewhat over the last five decades, Pacific Islanders might wish to remind themselves of the similarity of the current opposition toPacificIslandunskilled labour to the almost forgotten “White Australia” policy.

The sad current reality is that Australian and NZ leaders do not have a vision of a gradual step-wise set of initiatives that could absorb thePacificIslands into a future South Pacific Community of equals.

A genuine South Pacific community which would not only control a quarter of the world’s surface,  but would give Australia and NZ- minnows in world politics- a far more powerful international voice, with twenty votes behind them.

Remember the White Australia Policy?

   With the increasing ease of movement of our elites toAustralia, we forget that the nation state ofAustralia was born in racism.  We forget that the first “guest workers” inAustralia were thousands of Chinese and Pacific Islanders (“kanaks”), who were booted out to make White Australia a reality.

Read Myra Willard’s History of the White Australia Policy to 1920 (Melbourne University Press) and Russel Ward (The History of Australia 1901-1975, Heinemann Educational Books, 1978)- both available at the USP Library.

Willard and Ward give objective but chilling accounts of why the originally separate Australian colonies found that they had to unify into one federalAustralia–because that was the only way they could exclude non-whites from the whole continent.

Well before 1900, the tens of thousands of Chinese successfully working in the gold mines and other industries faced intense opposition from white Australian workers who feared the Chinese workers’ superior work ethic, their ability to make ends meet with lower wages, and their superior saving ability.

Above all, there was a national fear of the “Yellow Peril”- the hordes of Asians who might flood the relatively empty Australian continent and submerge the Anglo-Saxon character ofAustralia(see the cartoon).

[Aboriginals were not part of the picture at all: they were expected to gracefully die out, leaving the continent to the superior white races].

Read Willard for accounts of widespread violence against the Chinese workers; the passage of  legislation after legislation imposing strict European language tests on potential migrants, with the sole aim of preventing non-Europeans from setting foot in Australia, either as migrants, or even as seamen on ships; the rafts of discriminatory taxation discouraging Chinese workers and businesses.

The history of the firstPacificIsland“guest workers” inAustraliais even more scandalous.   Russel Ward points out that between 1847 and 1904 some 60,000 Melanesians (kanaks) were brought toAustraliaby recruiters who “often employed deceit, violence or murder”, resulting in the depopulation of whole coastal areas ofVanuatuandSolomon Islands.

Willard documents the horrendous conditions under which the first Pacific Islanders worked to build the infant sugar industry and theQueenslandeconomy:  at wages which were a fifth of what was paid to white workers; and mortality rates more than were five times that of the white Australians.

The Pacific Islanders also were welcomed in other industries, and similarly aroused the opposition of white Australian labourers.  Despite the huge economic benefits of these non-white workers, the early political leaders had to heed national voter opinion against their presence.

Various measures were tried to discourage the use ofPacificIslandlabour – such as a high bounty paid to Australian sugar grown with white labour, while a high duty was applied to imported sugar.     When all else failed, legislation had to be passed to deport any “kanaks” still around in Australiaafter 1906.

Willard (p 201) notes that while Australians adopted the White Australia policy because they believed it to be “necessary for their existence as a nation of the British type” sheer racism was a large part of the motivation.  The first Prime Minister Barton  would bluntly state (Ward, p 36) that the non-white races (Chinese, Indians, Negroes) were “unequal and inferior”.   The first Attorney General (Alfred Deakin) who later also became Prime Minister “harboured racist feelings, however urbanely disguised”.

AndBritainwent along with this racist legislation because all the “dominions” (white controlled colonies) of South Africa,CanadaandNew Zealandwho wereBritain’s partners, also sympathized withAustralia’s ideal, and had adopted similar policies.

So what has changed?

   For most of the last century, bothAustralia andNew Zealand rejected even skilled educated migrants from the Pacific, or even students who wished to pay their way through university.

In recent decades, both have used a carefully designed “points system” to open up to the immigration of non-whites, including Pacific Islanders, who meet specific skills shortages.

Both countries have thereby vacuumed up massive proportions of vital human capital from thePacificIslands, whose loss over the years has struck at the heart of the islands’ development processes.

Ironically, one result has been the numerous donor-funded “institution strengthening projects” throughout the Pacific with huge amounts of the aid spent on Australian and NZ “experts” temporarily replacing the Pacific Islanders who went on to contribute their scarce skills in Australia and NZ.

If an objective assessment was carried out, it will likely show that that these donor-funded efforts to have been merely “band-aid” strategies, pushing fingers into ever increasing numbers of holes in the Pacific Island human resource dykes.

The deafening silences

   It is an academic indictment of the studies by Hughes and AusAID’s Pacific 2020 that there are a number of deafening silences on crucial aspects of current economic relations between Australia/NZ and thePacificIslands:

* the massive dollar value of the human capital which has been lost by thePacificIslandsto Australiaand NZ (far in excess of their aid to the Pacific)

* the inevitability of this process continuing into the foreseeable future.

* the debilitating impact of this emigration onPacificIslanddevelopment

* the reality that for more than a century, Australian and NZ investment in Pacific Island banks, insurance companies, mines, manufacturing industries, wholesale and retail trades have been making huge profits which have been repatriated to Australia and NZ.

* the reality that three quarters of every dollar that is spent in the Pacific islands, is spent on goods fromAustraliaand NZ, creating employment there.

* the reality that were a totally free trade deal with Australia and NZ to come in, tens of thousands of jobs will be lost in the Pacific Islands, and gained by Australia and NZ.

How can such critical issues be ignored by any objective academic who wishes to examine the desirability of unskilled Pacific Islanders working in Australiain areas where Australian employers themselves have stated that they face shortages?

And it is to these under-utilised human resources that island countries have looked for the remittance benefits – which Hughes denies, and AusAID ignores.

The great benefits of remittances

   Study after study has shown the great development benefits of remittances, especially forTonga andSamoa.  And now, Fiji has joined this group, with remittance earnings shooting up to more than $500 million- exceeding net earnings of sugar, tourism, garments, fish, gold or water.

For the sake of earning a livelihood for their families, Fijian entrepreneurs have ventured out into the global labour markets for nurses, care givers, nannies, and, horribly, as security guards in war-torn Iraq and now Lebanon.

Many may not risk their lives in the Middle East, wereAustraliaand NZ to open up their labour markets for unskilled Pacific Islanders.

The Australian attack on Pacific Island labour

   But while Australian employers desperately wantPacificIsland labour, Professor Hughes sets out a number of spurious arguments whyAustralia should not allow them in:

*       “having 50,000 workers a year will not make any major difference to the problems of unemployment in the islands” (nobody claims that it would – but why deny whatever benefits that can eventuate?)

*       “there would be a cost to the unemployed inAustralia” (employers want Islanders because they cannot get the Australian unemployed to do this work in sufficient numbers)

*       “The Australian Government should look after the employment interests of  Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders first” (since when have Australians considered helping Islanders a trade-off with helping Aboriginals- why not cut all aid funds or “technical assistance”, or “institution strengthening projects” in the Pacific?)

*       “For most Pacific Islanders a Pacific guest worker scheme would be a cruel deception” (is it not more cruel that Pacific Islanders are forced to spill their blood in Iraq to earn remittance incomes which are spent on Australian and NZ goods and services, which create jobs for Australians and NZers?)

*       “the fruit-picking wages in Australia would have to rise substantially or the costs would have to be subtracted from workers wages or paid for by tax-payers” (what idle conjecture: and why interfere with the free market- let the employers and employees and demand and supply sort it out – as they always have over the years)

*       “unskilled seasonal workers with their limited English and literacy are vulnerable to overstaying” (our decent hard working parents would never have satisfied the European language tests of the White Australia policy, they would never have been accepted as unskilled guest workers- and yet their highly educated children are the very people who Australia and NZ have grabbed at no cost to their tax-payers)  (and who, according to the Aboriginals, were the first “overstayers” in Australia?)

*       “But remittances are predominantly spent on replacing local foods such as fish and vegetables with imported packaged foods and beverages with ensuing health problems” (all income is spent partly on imported goods – imported from Australia and NZ – why not eliminate all income?)

*       “in the absence of land and other private property rights only a negligible share of remittances goes to investment and economic development” (what a farcical criticism of this valuable inflow of net cash funds which far outweighs the total volume of credit given to the rural people and the rural economies by banks and hire purchase companies; and what if a large part is used for consumption- what indeed do Australians and NZers do with increases in their incomes?)

*       “The World Bank support of the Guest Worker scheme is comparable to their abandonment of the key role of growth in development, and increased welfare support of aid” (what rubbish: these are not “either/or” policies; they can be pursued simultaneously and can be complementary – especially if remittances ease balance of payments problems- as it currently does in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga); and “guest workers” are not asking for welfare payments – they will be working very hard for their wages- probably harder than white Australians or back-packers from Europe)

*       “a guest worker scheme would delay policy reform by appearing to provide a safety value for the unemployed”  (Tell that to the thousands of nurses, caregivers, security guards gladly working abroad for money. Why not knock every good export earner on the head to hasten policy reform in the islands?)

While the AusAID Pacific 2020 study is not as crass as Hughes in its opposition to the guest worker scheme, it is more subtle.  It briefly refers to the benefits of remittances to Pacific Island countries and the need to integrate with international labour markets, but  there is no mention of the nearest developed labour markets – in Australia and NZ.  It ignores this possibility altogether.

Academic imperialism

   The Pacific 2020 document claims that “it presents a mix of growth opportunities and challenges to stimulate dialogue and debate”.

Yet one of the dismaying features of the AusAID Pacific 2020 study (and the Hughes study) is that the authors choose to completely ignore Pacific Island writers who have published different views on different integration possibilities for the future and, especially the great potential of remittance benefits arising out of the export of unskilled workers toAustralia and NZ.

These writings by PacificIslandacademics are not just in obscure USP journals, but in ANU’s own otherwise respected  Pacific Economic Bulletin.  And conference papers were delivered at their own conferences in Brisbane or Wellington.
AusAID and Hughes also ignore ANU’s own Pacific experts such as Dr Satish Chand,  who made a strong case recently for Pacific Island Guest worker schemes for Australian and NZ labour markets (see Pacific Futures edited by Michael Powles).

Also not heard are the views of  ANU’s Professor Ron Duncan (currently based at USP) who contributes to the World Bank’s Home and Away but strangely enough only on the chapter on population issues facing the Pacific.

While ample numbers of Pacific Islanders and “eminent persons” are “consulted” (usually for free) at the numerous “Round Tables” ultimately, the AusAID’s “experts” decided what went into Pacific 2020, and what was left out.

Given its regional influence, it is also unfortunate that the World Bank also undermines PacificIslandacademics.   Taking advantage of the relevant academic contributions of Pacific Islanders (both published and conference papers) the World Bank’s otherwise excellent publication (Home and Away) makes a solid case for a Pacific Island guest worker scheme,  but chooses to leave out any reference to the Pacific Islanders’ writings in their policy analysis.

It is a pity that AusAID, Hughes and the World Bank only give lip-service to the development ideal of “local sustainability of ideas and policy discussion”.   Their end products appear simply as “international experts” giving advice toPacificIslandcountries and their leaders, with local academics and their writings playing no part in the debate. Of course, political leaders are not accountable to international experts.

It is also a pity that for Pacific 2020, AusAID managed to obtain the support of  threePacificIsland leaders (Namaliu, Urwin and Rogers) who wrote flattering forewords.  Those who pay the piper can ask for the tunes.

A fallout from Australian politics?

   Perhaps Howard’s opposition to the guest worker scheme is the result of a domestic political strategy in which he has outflanked the Labour Party.

In the normal scheme of Australian politics, as with the White Australia Policy a hundred years ago,  one would have expected pro-employer Howard to support a guest worker scheme which employers’ organisations generally want.

The Labour Party (with its strong working class support) would normally be opposed to foreign guest worker schemes.

However, the unusual current reality is that the Australian Labour Party has come out in support of the Guest worker scheme, while Howard is opposing it.

With an election around the corner and political forces delicately balanced, Howard may have outflanked the Australian Labour Party with the ALP working class supporters (whose votes are more important than those of the few employers).

The innocent victim may be the Pacific Islanders Guest Worker scheme.

What will happen at the Forum meeting?

   Cynical regional observers know the pattern of these meetings.

Paternalistic donors know that judicious funding will ensure that the island delegates will be more than adequately wined and dined at the five star resorts, with enough per diems to allow shopping.

They expect some island leaders to sound forth on thePacific Wayof doing things, proudly warning that they will not be puppets ofAustraliaand NZ (even if they take their money).

More committees and sub-committees will be set up, with more “eminent persons groups” serviced and directed by the donors’ experts, and more meetings planned and financed by the donors, hopefully inAustraliaand NZ (where the shopping and entertainment is better).

Howard and Clark will make some small concessions – perhaps a reduction of local content requirements for theFijigarment industry, or the inclusion of wool products; perhaps a few workers may be allowed in here and there.

Not too long ago,Australiasuccessfully took the EU to the WTO courts and the EU preference prices for ACP sugar were declared illegal.   Having mortally wounded theFijisugar industry with an axe into its head, the kind Howard recently offered two experts to helpFiji’s ailing sugar industry.  Polite as most island leaders are, Qarase accepted the two band-aids to heal the wounds caused by the axe to the head.

While the  Pacific 2020 warns the island leaders of the dangers of Pacific Island countries “muddling on”, the island leaders are too polite to tell the Australian and NZ emperors that they are the ones who have been “muddling on” in the Pacific for more than a century.

Is there another vision?

   The pity is that Australian and NZ leaders do not have an alternative vision of a different kind of future South Pacific community integrated fairly.

We do not require legal agreements binding all the countries – that would be difficult if not impossible at this time.

But progress could be made independently on a number of different fronts with different pieces of a jigsaw puzzle falling gradually into place, slowly over time.

There could be substantial investment in island infrastructure – roads, utilities, education, medical services to improve the standards of living in the islands and encourage the residence of Islanders, Australians and Kiwis.

There can be joint investment in WTO-compatible industries focusing on tourism, timber, marine resources, services (like retirement homes and call-centre industries), leading to accelerated economic growth and rising incomes.

The emigration of skills will no doubt continue.  But there can also be encouraged flows of skilled persons back to the islands if salary conditions could be made conducive, perhaps with dual citizenship allowed for Pacific Islanders.

There can be the employment of large numbers of  willing Islanders in the dwindling defence forces (military and police) of Australia and New Zealand – Fijians, Samoans and Tongans not only have a “comparative advantage” for this kind of work, but surely would also be assets in a “Fortress Pacific” of the future, and helpful to any current “Fortress Australia” or any other “RAMSI” initiative.

There can be the employment of large numbers of  extremely seaworthy Tuvaluans andKiribatiin the navies ofAustraliaand NZ.  They would be valuable assets in the policing of the marine boundaries of a future South Pacific Community, if over-fishing and whaling are to be controlled (not to mention the exploitation of under-sea minerals including oil and gas).

There can be an exciting integration of the Pacific Islanders into Super 14 Rugby.

And surely, there can also be flows of unskilled labour which would help the poorest in the Islands, as well as be a critical source of development funds and export earnings.

   Of course, if unskilled Pacific Islanders were to get jobs inAustralia and NZ, there could also be the reduction of protective tariffs in the islands, with the likely job losses to Australian and NZ exports more bearable.

Without any grand legal agreement, these different jig saw pieces could fall in place gradually over the long term, to ensure some kind of convergence of incomes and standards of living between Australia/NZ and the islands, which would ease us into a more formal South Pacific Community of the future.

In effect, it would be as if the Australian and NZ governments were slowly moving towards treating the island communities just as they currently treat some remote rural community in Australia or NZ.

   But that would require Australian and NZ political leaders to have a long term vision of Pacific Islanders as one with Australian and NZ citizens in all aspects of human endeavour.

Is that vision too much to ask for?

Advertisements

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: