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Labor’s proposed Pacific labour scheme reforms might be good soft diplomacy but will it address worker exploitation?

National security has been a feature of this election campaign, but there’s been little substantive difference on key issues of foreign policy. Last week’s foreign policy debate between Foreign Minister Senator Marise Payne and Shadow Minister Penny Wong barely touched on differences in policy.

An exception was Labor’s proposed changes to the government’s existing Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme. This scheme provides jobs for Pacific and Timor-Leste workers in Australia.

Labor’s proposed policies for the Pacific are positive for Australia’s foreign policy, and include some wins for these workers.

But the plan so far does not make it clear how it will address rampant wage theft, exploitation and unsafe working conditions faced by Pacific workers in Australia.

And reforms made under the Coalition government have so far failed to fix systemic problems that have led to some Pacific Island workers being exploited.

Read more: How should the next Australian government handle the Pacific?

What has Labor proposed?

The recent Solomon Islands-China security pact revealed Coalition weaknesses in the Pacific. Labor soon proposed a suite of policies it said would “restore Australia’s place as the partner of choice for the countries in the Pacific”.

It proposed a new “pacific engagement visa” to provide pathways to permanent migration, the first of its kind in the existing Pacific labour mobility schemes.

This visa would initially allow about 3,000 Pacific Islanders to migrate annually to Australia.

Other proposed reforms include:

  • the travel costs of Pacific migrant workers to be paid by the federal government, instead of by employers
  • allowing Pacific migrant workers to bring their families with them
  • in a move welcomed by unions, a new dedicated agricultural visa would replace a contentiousAg visa” introduced last year.

Mistreatment, wage theft and exploitation

The existing Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme, which emerged from a series of reforms to older schemes, was launched in 2022.

It is more heavily regulated than other temporary workers visas. Still, significant concerns remain about workers on these schemes

Both Labor and Coalition governments have overseen various iterations of the scheme where exploitation and wage theft occurred. Since 2012, 30 workers have reportedly died on the Pacific Labour Scheme visa and a previous iteration, the Seasonal Worker Program.

Recently, the Senate Select Committee on Job Security heard from Pacific Islander seasonal workers who experienced wage theft and unsafe working conditions.

Pacific workers have experienced reduction in promised hours and pay deductions. One investigation revealed seasonal farm workers receiving as little as A$9 a week after deductions.

Critics have likened the poor conditions, underpayment and “skimming” of paychecks to modern slavery and “blackbirding” – where Pacific Islanders were lured or taken forcibly to work in Australia.

A scheme that serves too many masters

The problem with the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme is it serves too many masters.

Leaders in Pacific Island states like it because it provides overseas sources of work for citizens. For Australia, this scheme provides a positive soft diplomacy tool in Pacific engagement.

Yet, labour migration has also been shaped by the interests of Australian agricultural and horticulture sectors keen to fill a labour shortage.

In revisions of the Pacific labour program under the Coalition, industry interests have been prioritised ahead of workers.

And while Labor’s focus on increasing numbers of the overall intake through permanent residency is welcome, it raises questions about how it will ensure greater protections for workers.

The extent to which its plan will protect Pacific Islanders from exploitation is not clearly outlined in their policy platform. It only promises a “review” of the scheme and the provision of “whistle-blower” status to all temporary migrant workers.

Both major parties acknowledge labour mobility is important to Australia’s relationship with Pacific Island nations. Mick Tsikas/Pool Photo via AP

A policy priority

Both major parties acknowledge labour mobility is important to Australia’s relationship with Pacific Island nations.

As we have seen during the election campaign, constructive and genuine engagement with the Pacific region is critical to Australia’s national interests.

But addressing serious concerns about exploitation in existing schemes is crucial.

There is debate about whether to keep the scheme specific to the Pacific or extend it to Southeast Asia – so getting this scheme right is important.

Whoever wins on May 21, protecting Pacific workers in Australia must be a policy priority, as temporary migration will continue to rise post-pandemic.

Read more: In the wake of the China-Solomon Islands pact, Australia needs to rethink its Pacific relationships

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