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Guest workers in Australia

category indonesia / philippines / australia | workplace struggles | other libertarian press author Sunday May 28, 2006 15:36author by Unions for all wage slaves Report this post to the editors

A new form of exploitation

It is not only in developed skills that Australia faces a shortage, but the idea of guest workers from nearby islands faces some resistance

Toiling 10 hours a day picking tobacco leaves on a farm in Myrtleford, Victoria, Salen Kishore appreciates the back-breaking job that few Australians would deign to do.

«In Fiji we earn $60 or $70 per week. In Australia we get $500 or $600,» the 37 year-old Fijian guest worker explains. «I’ve got three children, and my mother and my sister in law and her two children are staying with me. Whatever I earn, I take to Fiji for my family and my children’s education».

Kishore’s boss, tobacco grower Stefan Saric, is disappointed his temporary Fijian work force has to fly home after four months on his farm in a training program organised through the British American Tobacco company.

«They’re very reliable workers», he says of his five Fijian farmhands, who are paid award rates of $15.17 per hour, minus a flat 29 per cent tax. «They’re polite people, they’re willing to work, they turn up every day and never cause any trouble in the community».

Kishore is one of only 10 Fijian labourers allowed to take temporary jobs in Australia this year under a traineeship program established after legal reforms last November that could pave the way for Australia’s first unskilled guest-worker scheme.

South Pacific leaders and Australian farm groups are pressuring the federal Government to let South Pacific islanders work here. The island nations want to put their armies of unemployed to work, remitting precious foreign currency home. Australian farmers are desperate for a willing source of short-term labour to harvest their crops.

Prime Minister John Howard has repeatedly ruled out a guest-worker scheme, and the federal departments of immigration, foreign affairs and employment oppose the idea as risky despite the Government’s encouragement of residency visas for skilled applicants, which have been rising.

But the signs are that Australia may bend to the demands of its South Pacific neighbours. The Senate references committee on employment, workplace relations and education is inquiring into the use of seasonal contract labour from the Pacific region in rural and regional Australia.

The inquiry, due to report in August, is juggling objections from unions and government departments, which fear illegal immigration and worker exploitation plus job losses among Australians, with the enthusiasm of farmers, South Pacific leaders and Australian companies in the region.

The inquiry’s chairman, Labor senator Gavin Marshall, reckons a limited guest-worker scheme is inevitable. «I think the dual benefit would be providing workers to Australian farmers and providing remittances back to South Pacific economies,» he tells Inquirer.

Why would Labor Party, with its union constituency, back a scheme that might pit low-skilled immigrants against Australian workers? «Our concern is that in five or six years there will be a [labour shortage] crisis and the response of the government will be to throw open the door,» Marshall says. «So I want to set some ground rules here. We want to ensure these people would have rights».

The inquiry is examining Canada’s guest-worker scheme, which lets farmers bring in more than 10,000 workers from the Caribbean and Mexico for up to eight months a year, provided no Canadians can fill the jobs. Farmers must pay at least the minimum award wage, guarantee 240 hours work over six weeks, provide free housing, pay for air fares and visas, and provide workers’ compensation. The guest workers pay Canadian taxes and have access to Canadian health care.

To the Australian Workers Union, such a proposal smacks of the Kanak labour snatched from South Pacific islands to work in the north Queensland cane fields in the 19th century. AWU national secretary Bill Shorten claims Mildura fruit growers in Victoria are plotting to bring in 10,000 Chinese workers to pick fruit and vegetables for four months a year. «This is a race to the bottom,» he says in the AWU submission to the Senate inquiry.

«Is it right that Chinese workers earn as little as 65c an hour? Such low wages create an incentive for Australian businesses to exploit those workers through guest-worker programs.

«A significant portion of Victoria’s fresh fruit crop is picked by undocumented workers who are highly vulnerable to exploitation and in some cases are offered wages as low as $3 per hour. Let’s call it the return of the Kanak culture», Shorten says.

Pacific Island countries, however, are only too happy to send their unemployed packing. Australia will give nearly $1 billion in foreign aid to the region this year but the islanders want the right to work here.

«Seasonal movement of labour is viewed by many of the countries of the Pacific as a critically important issue because of the huge direct economic benefits,» explains Greg Urwin, secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum, the regional policy-making and economic group of 16 nations that takes in Australia and New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Nauru, Tonga, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

«Access to temporary work abroad can help to build the domestic economy by supplying governments with a valuable source of foreign exchange».

The forum’s submission to the Senate inquiry says Fijian citizens working overseas sent home more than $FJ262 million in 2004: more than Fiji earned through tourism and 7per cent of gross domestic product. In Tonga, where remittances make up 39 per cent of GDP, 90 per cent of households depend on a family member working overseas. More Samoans live abroad than at home.

The PIF estimates that if Islanders took up 1per cent of unskilled jobs in Australia and New Zealand, their remittances would pour $1.2 billion annually into the region’s economy.

«Pacific island countries have high levels of population growth and a large youth bulge, but few employment opportunities,» says the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade submission to the inquiry. «This creates a large pool of unemployed youth, increasing the risk of instability and conflict. The ability to migrate therefore acts as a safety valve, relieving pressure on limited resources and employment opportunities.»

But DFAT warns that letting in Pacific workers could set a precedent under World Trade Organisation rules, opening the door to workers from countries such as China: «Any scheme which granted special access to Pacific Islanders may be open to challenge from other WTO members seeking similar access.»

Pacific island countries are determined to fight for access to the Australian and New Zealand job markets in negotiations for a regional free trade deal. South Pacific leaders lobbied Howard on the matter at the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Port Moresby last October. Howard told them Australia would not introduce a seasonal or guest-worker scheme but would set up one of its Australian Technical Colleges to train Pacific Islanders to Australian standards in the trades.

A submission on behalf of 100 Australian companies doing business in the region reckons access to the Australian labour market is «the single most important issue» on the island nations’ political agenda. «Australia’s management of its relations with the region over the next several years is likely to come to be judged by how it handles this issue,» says the submission, signed by ANZ Pacific chairman Bob Lyon, Westpac Pacific Banking chief executive Alan Walter and Pacific Legal Network partner John Ridgway.

They argue Australia already favours workers from New Zealand,and accepts backpackers on working holidays from rich countries in the northern hemisphere. Pacific Islanders would assimilate better than almost any other group, because they «speak mostly English, are generally familiar with Australian business and social practices, and play the same sports».

The Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, however, views any such proposal as «fraught with potential difficulties». It says «such schemes risk the exploitation of workers while opening up Australia to possible higher than acceptable rates of overstayers. Statistically, citizens from many countries in the South Pacific region are a higher immigration compliance risk.»

The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, too, dismisses a guest-worker scheme as «high-risk». «Unless the proposal was identified as part of Australian aid packages to participating countries, it is likely to result in increased demands from other countries to allow their lesser and unskilled workers access to the Australian labour market,» it says.

«In the absence of a rigorous monitoring scheme, the proposal has the potential to result in the displacement of Australian jobseekers. Unskilled workers and those with poor education and/or poor English are most at risk of exploitative behaviour by unscrupulous Australian employers through payment of below-award wages, excessive working hours and substandard working and living conditions.»

The flow of temporary workers to Australia has tripled in a decade, the Productivity Commission reported last week. About 50,000 skilled foreigners arrive each year on short-term visas to fill skills shortages. As well, about 7000 foreigners per year - the 10 Fijian tobacco pickers among them - can work in Australia on occupational trainee visas, which mix paid work with on-the-job training. And the number of backpackers on working holiday visas has doubled to 104,000 in 10 years.

DIMA admits that thousands more foreigners are working in Australia illegally. «A significant proportion of the estimated 46,400 visa overstayers are believed to be working illegally,» it told a Senate inquiry last month into new legislation that will punish employers for hiring illegal workers. Under the Migration Amendment (Employer Sanctions) Bill 2006, which was backed by the inquiry, bosses who exploit an illegal worker through slavery or sexual servitude face five years’ jail, with two years’ imprisonment for those who knowingly hire illegal immigrants or «recklessly» fail to check their visa status.

The Australian Horticulture Exporters Association complains that immigration raids are «creating havoc» among farmers. «These growers offer above-award rates and still can’t attract sufficient local Australian labour,» the association told the Senate’s Pacific labour inquiry. «They are often forced to use contractors who sometimes may employ illegal workers [who] either swap or use false IDs.»

The inquiry’s deputy chairwoman, Liberal senator Judith Troeth, a former farmer, is sceptical about the scheme, but open to the idea of pilot trials.

«I think it would be difficult to enforce,» she tells Inquirer. «I would sooner have Australians travel to do the jobs and have farmers pay more to get them. I couldn’t live with semi-skilled workers from Third World countries undercutting Australian workers. Unions have worked hard to establish good working conditions in this country and I wouldn’t want to see that undermined.

«We [the committee] are assured by some of the labour contractors that if you provide decent working conditions, a decent wage and some form of accommodation, you wouldn’t have a problem getting local pickers.»

The employment department notes that employment in agriculture, forestry and fishing has fallen more than 20 per cent in the past five years, with the Gippsland fruit-growing region shedding 70 per cent of its farm work force. Even so, 72 per cent of employers report trouble finding enough harvest labour. They rely heavily on backpackers, who make up half of Australia’s fruit-picking work force. Another quarter of the work force are «grey nomads», retirees on the caravan trail. Itinerant workers and unemployed people referred by labour placement schemes make up the rest.

In the recent budget, the Government made it easier for backpackers to stay on farms by letting them work for the same employer for six months instead of three out of 12. Yet farmers lament that backpackers, most of them young holidaymakers from Britain and Ireland, prefer to «follow the sun» along the coast, rather than work in remote regions or stick with one farmer for more than a few weeks.

«It’s physically demanding work, 10 to 15 hours a day,» says tobacco farmer Saric. «I have some great local workers but some people leave because it’s too hot or too cold, or else they spend all their money on alcohol and don’t turn up the next day.

«You ask any farmer around the area if they could get the Fijian labour, and they’d jump at the opportunity». The Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, however, views any such proposal as «fraught with potential difficulties». It says «such schemes risk the exploitation of workers while opening up Australia to possible higher than acceptable rates of overstayers. Statistically, citizens from many countries in the South Pacific region are a higher immigration compliance risk.»

The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, too, dismisses a guest-worker scheme as «high-risk». «Unless the proposal was identified as part of Australian aid packages to participating countries, it is likely to result in increased demands from other countries to allow their lesser and unskilled workers access to the Australian labour market,» it says.

«In the absence of a rigorous monitoring scheme, the proposal has the potential to result in the displacement of Australian jobseekers. Unskilled workers and those with poor education and/or poor English are most at risk of exploitative behaviour by unscrupulous Australian employers through payment of below-award wages, excessive working hours and substandard working and living conditions.»

The flow of temporary workers to Australia has tripled in a decade, the Productivity Commission reported last week. About 50,000 skilled foreigners arrive each year on short-term visas to fill skills shortages. As well, about 7000 foreigners per year - the 10 Fijian tobacco pickers among them - can work in Australia on occupational trainee visas, which mix paid work with on-the-job training. And the number of backpackers on working holiday visas has doubled to 104,000 in 10 years.

DIMA admits that thousands more foreigners are working in Australia illegally. «A significant proportion of the estimated 46,400 visa overstayers are believed to be working illegally,» it told a Senate inquiry last month into new legislation that will punish employers for hiring illegal workers. Under the Migration Amendment (Employer Sanctions) Bill 2006, which was backed by the inquiry, bosses who exploit an illegal worker through slavery or sexual servitude face five years’ jail, with two years’ imprisonment for those who knowingly hire illegal immigrants or «recklessly» fail to check their visa status.

The Australian Horticulture Exporters Association complains that immigration raids are «creating havoc» among farmers. «These growers offer above-award rates and still can’t attract sufficient local Australian labour,» the association told the Senate’s Pacific labour inquiry. «They are often forced to use contractors who sometimes may employ illegal workers [who] either swap or use false IDs.»

The inquiry’s deputy chairwoman, Liberal senator Judith Troeth, a former farmer, is sceptical about the scheme, but open to the idea of pilot trials.

«I think it would be difficult to enforce,» she tells Inquirer. «I would sooner have Australians travel to do the jobs and have farmers pay more to get them. I couldn’t live with semi-skilled workers from Third World countries undercutting Australian workers. Unions have worked hard to establish good working conditions in this country and I wouldn’t want to see that undermined.

«We [the committee] are assured by some of the labour contractors that if you provide decent working conditions, a decent wage and some form of accommodation, you wouldn’t have a problem getting local pickers.»

The employment department notes that employment in agriculture, forestry and fishing has fallen more than 20 per cent in the past five years, with the Gippsland fruit-growing region shedding 70 per cent of its farm work force. Even so, 72 per cent of employers report trouble finding enough harvest labour. They rely heavily on backpackers, who make up half of Australia’s fruit-picking work force. Another quarter of the work force are «grey nomads», retirees on the caravan trail. Itinerant workers and unemployed people referred by labour placement schemes make up the rest.

In the recent budget, the Government made it easier for backpackers to stay on farms by letting them work for the same employer for six months instead of three out of 12. Yet farmers lament that backpackers, most of them young holidaymakers from Britain and Ireland, prefer to «follow the sun» along the coast, rather than work in remote regions or stick with one farmer for more than a few weeks.

«It’s physically demanding work, 10 to 15 hours a day,» says tobacco farmer Saric. «I have some great local workers but some people leave because it’s too hot or too cold, or else they spend all their money on alcohol and don’t turn up the next day.

«You ask any farmer around the area if they could get the Fijian labour, and they’d jump at the opportunity».

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