Australian High Commission
Also accredited to Tuvalu

Downer Op-Ed on Labour Mobility

OP-ED: Labour Mobility
By Hon. Alexander Downer MP
Minister for Foreign Affairs

1 December

Australia is firmly committed to the stability, growth and future prosperity of the Pacific region. Recent claims that our approach to the labour mobility issue have put this commitment to the test - and that we have failed it - are simply wrong.

This year, over 150,000 people from all parts of the world will migrate to Australia under our open, non-discriminatory migration policy. Pacific islanders may and do come to Australia to live and work, on exactly the same basis as other people from all over the world. Immigration for permanent settlement underpins Australia's strong economic growth, social equity and national cohesion - to which Pacific islanders have made important and valued contributions.

There is already a great deal of labour mobility of skilled workers. The focus of Australia's permanent migration program is on dealing with particular skill shortages, and people from around the world also have the opportunity to train and to work temporarily in Australia under existing temporary business and occupational trainee arrangements. There are currently no mechanisms allowing for the entry of unskilled workers to Australia - from anywhere in the world. Australia has not had guest worker schemes in the past and is not attracted to them. Reasons for this include the doubtful economic viability of such schemes - short-term seasonal labourers are unlikely to make enough money in Australia to remit other than, at best, a very small amount to family members at home. We have also taken into account the uncertain nature of seasonal agricultural work, the risks of exploitation of the workers themselves and a range of compliance issues.

I have also noticed a tendency to equate the working holiday arrangements Australia has with a number of European and Asian countries with the guest worker proposal. These are fundamentally different concepts. Working holiday-maker arrangements are reciprocal and apply essentially to young people who want to holiday in Australia and do some work to defray expenses. They must have the means to support themselves in Australia whether or not they take a job. Guest workers by definition simply do not have that sort of financial independence.

The answer to the Pacific's large and growing unemployment problems does not lie in a few hundred unskilled young people coming to Australia to pick fruit for a few months of the year. The answer lies rather in domestically generated growth. As the World Bank points out, migration is no substitute for economic development, and development ultimately depends on sound domestic economic policies. Australia is committed to working in partnership with Pacific island countries to help build stability and growth, thereby creating jobs and reducing unemployment. This is one of the aims of Australia's extensive aid program in the region, with an estimated $955 million support to the Pacific in 2005-06.

There is a strong emphasis in our aid program on education, including skills development. At the Pacific Islands Forum in Port Moresby, the Prime Minister announced an in-principle decision to establish an Australian Technical College for the Pacific to increase significantly the number of skilled workers in the Pacific . This will provide the skills needed to help stimulate economic growth and development, as well as facilitating the mobility of workers throughout the region, including to Australia. It is the qualification, the skill, which is important, both for those seeking to migrate or gain temporary entry to Australia via existing skills categories, and for generating domestic commercial activity for those who choose to stay at home.

The objective of this initiative is not, as some would have it, to encourage an outflow of well-qualified people with much-needed skills from the Pacific islands to Australia and other developed countries, but rather, by training people to Australian standards, to give them opportunities to make substantial contributions to their countries' prosperity, whether at home or by remitting funds from abroad.

Australia and the Pacific island countries are partners, bound together by geography, history, trade, security and, most importantly, by an extensive range of close and growing community and people-to-people links. It is in all our interests to have the Pacific island countries succeed in improving the living standards of their growing populations by making the most of their endowments. This has long been our objective and we remain firmly committed to it.