Australia has a recognised shortage of casual workers in rural areas and there are reports of farmers ploughing crops back into the ground due the lack of workers. A report by Ernst and Young suggested that by March, shortage of workers could be as high as 26,000 and as a result the prices of fruit and vegetables might rise as much as 50 per cent, DERYCK THOMPSON writes
Casual rural workers in Australia come from all over the world, typically back packers, but increasingly from Asia, and the Pacific, under organised schemes.
Example – up until the Covid-19, the Pacific labour scheme arranged for thousands of workers from Vanuatu to come to Australia to work in the rural areas, including picking blue berries on the Atherton Tablelands and bananas at Tully.
Meanwhile, there were only just over 100 casual workers from Papua New Guinea, which with a population of about 8 million, is more than all other Pacific nations combined.
PNG has a large number of people seeking work and one has to ask why so few of them are recruited to work in rural Australia.
If a PNG citizen can play rugby they are welcome.
If they have money to buy real estate they were welcomed with no questions asked – several former PNG prime ministers and ministers own real estate in Australia.
Even if they “legally suspect” they were allowed in – when Jimmy Maladina was being sought by PNG police investigating a multi-million kina swindle, Jimmy was safe in Queensland on a working visa.
The political and entrepreneurial elite in PNG know that life in Australia, particularly Cairns, is good – many are living here, or base their families here – somehow overcoming visa issues.
At least one current member of the PNG Parliament has his family based in Cairns.
These elites know that there is a double standard – Australians (pre-Covid-19) would arrive in PNG and get a visa on arrival – but for the average PNG citizen, even if they are able to obtain a PNG passport, it is still a long road to get a visa to enter Australia – there is a documented case of bona fide sponsored Bible language translators refused visas on the basis that they were at risk of absconding after arrival in Australia.
Papua New Guineans are very proud of their country, despite the daily chaos of life.
No doubt, those who are aware of international issues, especially politicians, feel that Australia is showing great disrespect by not allowing their countrymen and women to work in Australia given that Australia facilitate thousands of casual workers from all over the Pacific to come to Australia for casual work – see table above.
There are numerous reasons given for the disparity in casual workers recruited to work in Australia.
Recent research from the Australian National University (ANU) identified a number of factors.
One was that the sending country was able to attract large employers (labour hire companies) who were able to rapidly hire workers and who could manage the transaction costs of hiring and travel. Another was that those agencies have a high proportion of return workers, who were more productive in employment, more trusted by their end employers and were able to recommend new workers from their home countries.
However, the ANU research also indicated that the PNG Government needed to show employers that it could take the lead in recruitment process and perform its role efficiently and that trusted intermediaries were needed to work with employers to assess workers in terms of their suitability and to help workers take the steps required to obtain a PNG passport and Australian visa within a short period.
Any expanded scheme to employ PNG workers in Australia would require high level government to government co-operation.
There are already PNG nationals working overseas, including New Zealand and the Government of PNG has aspirations to increase this number but it would require pro-active involvement from Australia to get it to actually happen.
It would make sense for Australia to formally facilitate the enhanced worker programme as part of the annual PNG aid package.
Meanwhile, it is ironic that Australia still gives PNG about US$500 million (K1.80tril) every year to prop up its economy and every year the amount of money the PNG governments (national and provincial) spend in rural areas is reduced which led to a massive run down of services and, thus, a much reduced quality of life for rural dwellers.
It also led to a massive drift to urban areas.
If more Papua New Guineans were recruited to work in Australia, many would send their earnings direct to their families, most of whom would be rural based, and the money would by-pass the current corrupted system.
It would be a win-win for all stakeholders.
As well as being good for PNG-Australia relations, it would provide Australia with the necessary rural workers and it would also help fend off the creeping tide of other foreign influences on PNG.
One can only assume the politicians in Canberra still see the average Papua New Guinean through historic glasses and still regard them as uncivilised and untrustworthy, although the official reason given would be that Papua New Guineans are likely to abscond and not return home after their contract is over.
At the same time, in the year ending June 2019, thousands of bogus tourists were allowed to arrive by air into Australia and 24,520 of them, including more than 10,000 Malaysians, sought protection visas on arrival.
This is clearly a double standard.
While there are no doubt many socially destructive people in PNG, the majority are honest and hardworking.
In Cairns, it is estimated that there are about 5,000 people of PNG origin and many of them are in the local workforce and they are well regarded.
In so far as this employment issue relates to Cairns, in recent years the Cairns business community has been seeking opportunities to provide goods and services for the world class Wafi-Golpu gold deposit when construction starts in the next year or so.
This massive deposit is located in Morobe about 50 kilometres inland from Lae which has been a sister city to Cairns since 1984.
Cairns is geographically closer to Lae (about 1150 km) than to Brisbane (about 1450 km) but Lae may as well be on another planet.
While the Cairns business community may have fantasies about involvement in Wafi-Golpu, it, and the federal government, have done very little to foster real connections between Lae and Cairns.
On a very parochial level, employing PNG workers in the greater Cairns area, especially those from Morobe, would go a long way to fostering real relationships – and show real respect for Australia’s closest neighbour.
One has to ask what is the rationale of giving priority to employment of thousands of workers from countries thousands of kilometres away and with whom Australia have limited socio-political connection when it could increase workers from its nearest neighbour with whom it shares a common border and with whom it has political, social and blood ties going back nearly 150 years.
Australia needs to urgently review where it sources casual workers and to consider dramatically increasing the number of short-term workers from Papua New Guinea.
The writer worked in rural PNG from 1972 to 2018 and in the intervening 46 years saw how the quality of life severely decreased for the average rural dweller – reduced employment opportunities, poor or non-existent health services, reduced education facilities, and lack of law and order which are now all making rural life extremely difficult.
Deryck Thompson can be reached on email@example.com