‘Circular’ labour mobility between Australia and Pacific island countries delivers strong mutual benefits to both Australia and the region. Australian businesses in regional and rural Australia can supplement their seasonal and longer-term labour needs with a reliable, returning Pacific workforce in industries where domestic labour supply is not sufficient to meet the growing demand. Pacific workers, in turn, benefit from the opportunity to gain skills and experience not available in their home countries, earn higher incomes and increase their remittances back home that can be used to pay for their children’s education, setting up businesses, and building houses and community facilities.
PACER Plus includes a chapter on Movement of Natural Persons covering the employer-sponsored temporary entry and stay of skilled workers. In keeping with global Free Trade Agreement practices, negotiating Parties agreed not to include treaty-level commitments on unskilled and semi-skilled workers. Instead they agreed to a separate Labour Mobility Arrangement to facilitate the circulation of temporary workers from the Pacific island countries to Australia and New Zealand, including by enhancing existing schemes.
Australia piloted the Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme in 2009 and launched the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) in 2012 as a capped program, primarily in the agriculture industry (horticulture sector). Since 2012, more than 16,000 seasonal workers from nine Pacific island countries (Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu) and Timor-Leste have participated in the Seasonal Worker Programme.
In July 2015, as part of the Government’s Northern Australia White Paper [PDF], the cap on the Seasonal Worker Programme was removed and the program was expanded into additional industries in certain locations, such as hospitality and tourism, accommodation and livestock agriculture. This created an alternative source of labour for Australian employers that addresses seasonal business peaks, and maintains a focus on addressing employer-driven demand in a variety of industries, while meeting the primary aid objective of the programme.
In addition to enhancing the Seasonal Worker Programme, in July 2015, the Government announced a new program – Northern Australia Worker Pilot Program – bringing up to 250 workers from Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu to work in Northern Australia for 2-3 years in low and semi-skilled occupations in businesses that can demonstrate that no Australian workers are available to fill those vacancies.
The Labour Mobility Arrangement
The Labour Mobility Arrangement complements and expands Australia’s existing initiatives. Australia and New Zealand have agreed to work with the Pacific island countries to improve worker pre-departure briefing contents and processes, increase the number and quality of workers participating in the programme, and support targeted activities to increase the benefits (financial and other) for workers and their communities resulting from their participation in labour mobility programs. The Labour Mobility Arrangement also establishes the Pacific Labour Mobility Annual Meeting (PLMAM), which will serve as a forum to discuss regional labour mobility priorities such as enhancing existing initiatives and exploring options for new areas of cooperation.
Australia and New Zealand are committed to helping Pacific island countries maximise the opportunities for potentially transformative labour mobility programs - to strengthen economic progress and improve livelihoods in the region. Australia’s Labour Mobility Assistance Program and Pastoral Care Program support Pacific island countries through the development and implementation of plans and strategies in sending countries. The programs improve the supply and quality of workers and build people’s capacity for reintegration, to ensure workers utilise their savings and skills for productive activities when they return home. The programs also provide participating workers with local area orientation, Australian laws and customs, financial and personal banking and other training while in Australia. To ensure participating workers receive objective advice on the most cost-effective way to remit money, Australia funds SendMoneyPacific.
Australia also funds the Australia-Pacific Technical College (APTC) with five campuses in the region providing Australian-standard qualifications. The next, newly-designed phase of the APTC, due to commence in 2018, will provide an opportunity for the Australian industry and enterprises to connect with APTC graduates who meet domestic and international workforce requirements and are well prepared for Australia’s and New Zealand’s ‘circular’ labour migration pathways.