By MALUM NALU
PAPUA New Guinea is literally missing out on money that grows on trees through the Australia Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP.
Now, one district, Kavieng, through its district development authority and maverick MP and Shadow Treasurer Ian Ling-Stuckey, is moving in to reap the benefits
According to a 2017 World Bank Report, the SWP – which involves fruit picking and working on large Australian farms – was initially introduced in 2012 following a four-year pilot scheme, which commenced in August 2008.
The programme is open to Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, PNG, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
Papua New Guinea, however, is not making use of this opportunity: A mere 129 workers participated last year and the number has gone down even further to 92 this year.
“It (SWP) started off with a 12,000-worker cap for the initial four years of implementation, but this was removed in 2015, and a host of additional reforms aimed at addressing the demand-side constraints of the programme were introduced,” the report says.
“Since these reforms, the programme has expanded rapidly – with 6,166 workers arriving in 2017.
“The SWP is one of only a handful of migration schemes globally that maintains the explicit objective of contributing to the economic development of labour – sending countries.”
The report says over a six-month employment stint, the average Pacific seasonal worker is remitting approximately A$2,200 (K5,255) while in Australia and transferring A$6650 (K15, 884) in savings home at the end of their stay.
“At the aggregate level, the SWP has employed 17,320 Pacific Islanders since 2012 and delivered approximately A$144 million (K344 million) in net income gains to the region,” it says.
“The programme is clearly delivering on its core objective of contributing to the economic development of participating countries, as measured in terms of income.
“The aggregate development impact to date is most significant for Tonga, Vanuatu, Samoa and Timor-Leste.
“The A$99.4 million (K237 million) in net income that Tonga has gained through the programme since its inception is more than double the annual bilateral aid budget from the Australian government (DFAT 2017).
“The A$26.2 million (K63 million) earned in FY17 also represents more than double the A$12.4 million (K29.6 million) generated through Tonga’s exports.
“For Vanuatu, the A$31.5 million (K75 million) generated amounts to approximately 45 percent of Australia’s annual bilateral aid budget (DFAT 2017).
“The A$5.8 million (K13.9 million) in income gains for Samoa and A$5.5 million (K13 million) for Timor-Leste are equally remarkable, given they were later entrants to the programme.”
Ling-Stuckey says the labour mobility under the Australian government’s SWP is one way to rescue the ailing economy of the country when jobs are very hard to find.
He has returned from another trip to Australia to organise for workers from Kavieng to be employed in Australia.
Ling-Stuckey has been in discussions with Australian government, farmers and Papua New Guinea seasonal workers.
Under the scheme, which has been included in the Kavieng District Five-Year Development Plan (KD5YDP), Pacific island countries including PNG are invited to work in the Australian horticultural (fruit and vegetable) sector as pickers.
Ling-Stuckey says the average pay rate to seasonal workers, which is an unskilled position, is A$18-22 (K43-K52) per hour.
“When you sit back and look at it, there’s a win-win situation here,” he tells me.
“Our government can’t provide enough jobs.
“That’s a fact.
“Why shouldn’t we take advantage of this scheme and send our workers down?
“Not only do they get a job, they earn 15 times what they can get in Papua New Guinea.
“Our minimum wage rate is K3.50 per hour: They’re offering K60.”
Ling-Stuckey visited Kalbar, outside Brisbane, where he talked to farmers and PNG workers there.
“There are no jobs (in PNG) now,” he says.
“This labour mobility is one very easy way, in my view, to address this.
“According to Australian government figures, there was a total of AS144 million (K344 million) repatriated back to the Pacific island countries from the SWP.
“Out of the AS144 million, about AS90 million (K215 million) was earned by Tonga, who are the biggest beneficiaries over that five-year period.
“If you compare the AS90 million they sent home from their earnings, that’s double their total country exports.
“That’s a really nice story.
“If they can remit more money home than their exports, they can save the economy.”
Ling-Stuckey is in discussion with the Australian government on the SWP.
“I’m saying to them: Let’s look at this programme and how it can benefit more PNG people,” he says.
“For example, we get AS480 (K1.1 billion) to AS500 million (K1.2 billion) in aid grants.
“That’s about K1 billion.
“If we could send 33,000 people to Australia to work, they would send home K1 billion a year.
“So we say to Australia: Instead of giving us free money, we’re ready to work for it.
“Labour mobility is a very big issue, it’s a national issue, but the problem is that our government is not treating labour mobility or the SWP as a serious economic subject.
“My personal view is that a ministry for labour mobility should be established as it’s such a big issue.
“Treat labour mobility as a solution to creating employment and increasing GDP in the non-resource sector.”
Kavieng district development authority is moving ahead full steam in its bid to have people from there involved in the SWP.
Ling-Stuckey says the KDDA remains committed to have its people involved in the SWP.
“One hundred New Irelanders working for six months in Australia would remit and inject over K2 million into the New Ireland economy,” he says.
“They would be taking home invaluable foreign exchange.
“Imagine if we could implement labour mobility on a national scale?”
However, Ling-Stuckey cautions that the labour mobility scheme is not about how many PNG citizens can be employed in Australia but how many vacancies exist in their horticultural sector.
“Of about 6,166 Pacific island seasonal workers engaged in Australia in 2017, according to the World Bank, only about 129 PNG citizens were employed in the SWP scheme,” he said.
“This was disappointing.
“Together with Namatanai MP Walter Schnaubelt, we look forward to working closely with the Minister for Labour and his department to identify issues restraining PNG citizens from participating in larger numbers in the SWP.
“Kavieng and Namatanai district development authorities will be working closely to coordinate and facilitate a working plan going forward.
“The seasonal worker programme seems to be a win-win policy for all four stakeholders: PNG worker, Australian employer and both the PNG and Australian governments.”
We look forward to seeing how Kavieng and Ling-Stuckey progress with the SWP.
By MALUM NALU