House in Epi

This Epi medical facility was built using about VT8 million in money raised by RSE workers.

Tucked in between the lines of the 2016 report that set off the whole Australian agricultural visa debate is the message that regulation is hardship, and filling out forms is hardship, and farmers deserve less hardship. Therefore, the parts of the agricultural visa programme that involve regulation and forms and red tape should be sidelined, in favour or more ad hoc, lower-overhead solutions.

The last thing farmers they need is a heavier burden. They already carry the country on their back.

And this week, when Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison finally announced details of the new and improved agricultural visa scheme, he ignored the welfare of Pacific workers, and the value they represent to farmers. Instead, he made it easier for backpackers to come to Australia, stay longer, and work on a casual basis picking fruit and vegetables and generally acting as a harvest-time labour pool for farmers.

It’s easy to see how this came about. It’s not so easy to see the cost.

There’s a clear anti-regulation preference among organisations representing Australian farmers. And there’s no mystery where that came from. You don’t go into agricultural work because of your love of office work. Your plans are subject to the vagaries of climate and weather, and the last thing you need is to feed and house a dorm full of contractual obligations when the harvest is delayed, or ends prematurely.

Compared with a crew of Pacific islanders, who have to be selected and processed, cleared for entry, transported, housed and actually cared for, a backpacker looks like a much lighter burden for a farmer to bear. They’re flakier, true, but that’s what you get with easy-come-easy-go work conditions. There’s always another, anyway.

Of course, they do leave more fruit on the trees. And studies have shown that they’re the least efficient form of farm labour. Pacific islanders, on the other hand, actively contribute to prosperity. According to New Zealand’s Otago Daily Times, a recent report shows that “nationally, nearly 90% of employers on the scheme have been able to each employ, on average, five additional permanent workers and 20 seasonal workers.”

New Zealand’s Labour and Immigration Research Centre reported in 2012 that “RSE workers had the highest median gross wages over a 12-week period compared to other worker groups (new RSE workers, new and returning New Zealanders, and casual workers), providing evidence of greater productivity amongst the returning RSE workers.”

Yes, there’s more effort and planning involved. But for farmers with fairly predictable work schedules, there’s a demonstrable benefit to hiring from the Pacific.

Obviously, Australian farmers are not responsible for their country’s foreign policy. And promises made on their behalf should be made with their knowledge and consent. It is a fair criticism to say that the Seasonal Worker Programme had growing pains in the early stages. Part of this was a failure to work more closely with farmers to help them understand it, and even access it.

Some growers fell afoul of it for the wrong reasons; some did so innocently.

Many participants—people who were already sold on the idea—found the amount of red tape to be an onerous burden. Compare to that someone who arrives with their home on their back, who requires very little care and nurture, and who leaves with little more than a fond adieu. The red tape must have looked like too much to bear.

But things are much better now than they were. One local recruiting agent told the Daily Post he can get a worker processed and lined up to travel in days now, as opposed to weeks before. The number of participants is growing, and there’s a rising demand for places in the programme that actually can’t keep up with the rising demand from farmers.

It’s not for everyone, but the farmers who do like it, like it a lot.

For Ni Vanuatu workers, it’s a chance to change lives. Not only their own, but their entire village’s.

A remarkable story appeared in our pages just yesterday:

“Recognized Seasonal Employment (RSE) workers on Epi have invested around VT 8 million [nearly AU $100,000] of their hard-earned money to fund a new fully furnished doctor’s house at Vaemali Health Center and handed it over to the Government.

“After handing the key to the Ministry of Health (MOH), the RSE workers ask that the government appoint a doctor to live in the house and serve the medical needs of the people on the island.”

The welfare of people from a foreign country may be a distant concern to farmers who are just trying to get by. And social justice was never a reason to hire anyone outside of civil society.

But I tell you, If I were an Australian farmer trying to get the crop in on time, I know who I’d want in my fields. I wouldn’t want the one doing it for a lark. I’d want the one who cares.

A backpacker carries their home on their back. Ni Vanuatu workers carry their entire village.

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