A new era for jobs

The Government expanded the Pacifi c Labour Scheme to more countries. Picture: SUPPLIED/ Growcom

All Fiji jobseekers should closely watch the results of the 2022 Australian Elections unfolding on the May 21, 2022, and hope for a clear win by the Australian Labour Party as the polls are predicting.

In the last few months, former Fiji citizens living in Australia will have seen an extraordinary turnaround in Australian political attitudes towards allowing Pacific Islanders (including Fijians) to work in Australia, holding great hope for their relatives and others in Fiji.

Usually, it is the pro-employer Coalition Liberal National Party which tries to get foreign labour to fill the hundreds of thousands of Australian job vacancies, while the Australian Labour Party under the influence of the unions, usually opposes the measures because they fear that cheaper foreign labour will undermine their own wage negotiations.

But there has been an extraordinary turnaround in the current 2022 elections, with the Australian Labour Party surprisingly outbidding the Liberal Coalition in promising to make it easier for Pacific Islanders to come into Australia to fill the vacancies, both through temporary labour mobility schemes and through permanent migration.

The three catalysts for the change

There have been three catalysts for this extraordinary change in policies by the two major parties towards foreign labour. The first was the last two years of the COVID pandemic which saw the Australian borders being closed down, denying many parts of Australian agriculture the seasonal labour provided by back-packers. So both political parties have seen that the agricultural crops have been saved because of seasonal workers from COVID-free Pacific Islands.

The second unexpected catalyst and probably of far greater long-term influence has been the recent signing of Solomon Islands-China Treaty, which both political parties have perceived to be a risk to their geostrategic interests in the Pacific.

The ALP has accused the Liberal Australian Government of its biggest foreign policy failure since World War II, increasing the military vulnerability of Australia to Super Power like China.

Whether these conclusions are justified or not, the fortunate by-product impact for the Pacific has been an even greater emphasis on strengthening Australia-Pacific relations, not just through more aid dollars, but through closer economic, political, social and military ties (as I outline below through the proposed ALP initiatives).

The third catalyst is embedded in several of the ALP social services promises during the elections intended to address what has generally been acknowledged to be major social policy disasters in Australia.

In particular, there has been a disaster in age care homes and the lack of health services in regional Australia.

The key point to note is that both major political parties acknowledge that while the long term solution is to increase the domestic supply of skilled people, this cannot be done overnight.

Both parties see that imported foreign skilled labour will have to be part of the solution, with many commentator here preferring them from the Pacific rather than from Asian countries, purely for geostrategic reasons.

But first, let me address those in Fiji who may worry about losing valuable Fijian human capital which has been trained in Fiji at great taxpayer expense.

The point is that this export of skilled labour is going to generate incomes for Fiji far greater than any new industry has done within Fiji or is ever likely to, regardless of the continuous hype by ever Fiji government.

Phenomenal increase in remittances

The Fiji public might ponder on the unfortunately reality that for more

than two decades, there have been virtually no new industries developed in Fiji. Sadly, the traditional ones like the sugar industry has collapsed to half the levels of twenty years ago and looks unlikely to be revived in the short term.

Even the tourism industry has proved to be terribly vulnerable to disasters like COVID. In contrast, through virtually no action by any Fiji governments, a massive remittance industry has evolved over the past 20 years, steadily growing to over $700 million a year of net foreign exchange receipts (recorded) and probably far more unrecorded. Contrast that with the gross earnings of $150 million for the sugar industry which soaks up massive amounts of taxpayer funds in a vast variety of ways.

The remittances are probably even higher than the retained earnings for tourism.

So losing skilled human capital to Australia is actually an export industry of immense long-lasting economic value to Fiji. It is of course also a massive benefit to the Fiji citizens themselves, given the huge differences in income between Fiji salary scales and Australian salaries where the basic minimum wage (a massive political issue in the current elections) is about $A20 per hour or about $F30 per hour.

To put it into perspective, a carer in Fiji earning $15,000 a year can expect to earn more than $A50,000 ($F76,413) a year in Australia.

Remember also that Fiji tertiary education institutions have considerable excess capacity to turn out skilled human resources such as doctors, nurses, age care workers, early childhood teachers, electricians etc. who are in huge demand, especially in regional and rural Australia, to which young Australians are averse.

It should also not be underestimated, how having large numbers of Fiji citizens working in Australia is a win-win situation for both Australia and Fiji. Fiji is brought closer to Australia without the outlay of massive amounts of Australian aid money which has little long term sustainable impact on Fiji even if Fijian politicians are always forever grateful to any donor, Australia or China.

Whoever the donor, there is never any shortage of salusalu for foreign donors. So Fiji jobseekers seeking a better life for themselves and their families, must seriously think about the job opportunities in Australia, if the ALP wins the election in a week’s time, as all the polls are now predicting. Where should they expect jobs to open up?

ALP’s new initiatives in the Pacific

Some hints may be gained from the political manifesto of the ALP.

Of course there is the usual strengthening of old aid projects in the Pacific boosting development through projects which foster “economic growth, health, education, water, sanitation and hygiene needs, climate change adaptation and resilience, gender equality and support for people with disability”.

But the ALP now fully understands that Australia cannot compete with Superpowers (like China) in throwing cash around in the Pacific especially as rigorous accountability to the Australian taxpayers means that the Australian Ambassador cannot go around delivering brown paper bags filled with coloured paper to Pacific politicians, as some other donors are accused of doing in the Solomon Islands.

So ALP has announced a whole set of new initiatives to strengthen Australia’s position in the Pacific through people-to-people initiatives.

The ALP has promised the following initiatives (more details on the ALP website) such as:

  • creating an Australia Pacific Defence School to provide training programs for PIC defence and security forces, building on existing programs and initiating new ones. Here are new opportunities for good the RFMF and Fiji Navy personnel who do not tarnish their reputations through supporting more coups;
  • strengthening Pacific Maritime Security and helping the Pacific tackle illegal fishing in the region (again, opportunities for the Fiji Navy);
  • a Pacific Climate Infrastructure Financing Partnership: to support climate-related infrastructure and energy projects in Pacific countries and Timor-Leste. Here are great possibilities for coastal communities;
  • Indo-Pacific Broadcasting Strategy: to boost Australian content and to project Australian identity, values, and interests to the Indo-Pacific region through the ABC and PacificAus TV, in consultation with the DFAT. Here are great opportunities for Fiji television to improve their developmental programs, away from their usual entertainment garbage; and
  • Increase bi-partisan parliamentary visits supposedly “to demonstrate to our Pacific family that stronger Pacific partnerships are in Australia’s national interest”. Hmmm. As if that will change anything, other than create more traffic jams wherever the foreign dignitaries wish to travel. But probably the two most important initiatives promised for Fiji jobseekers are:
  • Reforming and expanding the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Seasonal Worker Program, which have proved their immense benefit to Australia during the horrendous labour shortages caused by COVID. A future ALP Government will help to meet some of the upfront costs, while allowing a certain number of primary visa holders to bring their families and children to Australia while they work. There will also be an additional agricultural visa to allow workers to return year after year for four years; and
  • There will also be a boost to Pacific permanent migration to Australia with up to 3000 Pacific engagement visas allocated annually by ballot or lottery process, modelled on the NZ scheme.

New ALP Initiatives for Australia

It should also be noted that the ALP has also promised Australian voters a great number of initiatives which will require far more skilled workers in aged care homes and early childhood education than are currently available.

Fiji citizens should never be afraid of working in rural and regional Australia where the communities are far more welcoming and warm towards good citizens from abroad.

This was so clearly seen in the strong community outpouring of support for a Sri Lankan refugee family in Biloela against callous treatment by the Liberal Australian Government which was trying to deport them. Foreign workers will have to be resorted to, and it seems that the Pacific is being viewed more favourably than Asian countries, purely because of the possibility of thereby strengthening Australia’s geostrategic presence in the Pacific.

There seems to be considerable potential for Fiji’s tertiary training institutions in the Pacific like the universities to mount urgent training initiatives perhaps in collaboration with Australian tertiary institutions, to deliver Australian compatible qualifications.

I remind that Pacific TAFE now at USP was designed precisely to do that, although the objective of exporting skills to Australia was virtually a failure, I suspect because of a lack of support from Australian Immigration.

But that has now all changed and there may well be a new lease of life waiting for programs like Pacific TAFE.

Of course, some of the measures proposed are cosmetic (like Parliamentary co-operation) and some are old aid projects rehashed with funding increased.

But some are very definitely new initiative which are thin edges of incredibly valuable wedges in the door, with the potential of becoming major long-lasting benefits to Fiji and the Pacific.

Other fronts?

There is also room for other fronts (such as sports and arts) which the Australian politicians have not been able to see because they rarely look at themselves through Pacific eyes.

Fijians might also want to know that there is a great amount of goodwill in Australia for Fiji and Fijians through their appreciation of Fijian rugby players in Australia (men and women) as well as the many Fijian groups who have stepped up to assist Australians in disaster relief, such as during the recent bushfires and floods in Lismore.

There is a wonderful Australian TV clip of a burly Fijian seasonal worker carrying a elderly person out of a flooded Retirement Home, that will be played over and over again.

But growth of future opportunities also depend on Pacific people engaging with Australia in good faith and not abuse the system, as sadly a significant minority do, regularly.

I suggest also that Fiji, the Pacific countries and Forum Secretariat ought to now also be seeing a potential new era for negotiations on formal treaties like PACER Plus which will be far more valuable to Australia (and NZ) then just unilaterally boosting aid programs, as they are doing.

• PROF WADAN NARSEY is a former Professor of Economics at The University of the South Pacific. The views expressed are the author’s and do not reflect the views of this newspaper.

 

More Stories