History Behind Seasonal Work

Merilyn Temakon and the original sign she used to promote the idea of labour mobility

Seasonal employment has helped a lot of Ni Vanuatu over the years to earn some good money in Australia and New Zealand and now Australia has introduced the three-year Pacific Labour Scheme which a lot of Ni Vanuatu lined up at Independence Park for.

Let us look back and see where this idea of labour mobility reportedly started.

Meet Merilyn Temakon, one of the forerunners to this idea of sending Ni Vanuatu overseas for employment.

Mrs. Temakon said she came up with the idea alongside the late William Edgell and the late Douglas Malosu.

Reasons behind the idea of labour mobility

Temakon says since 1980, none of the governments have had any plan for labour mobility and no political parties had it in their policies. She says it was a taboo subject as something of such nature would be seen as a reminder of the black birding days.

However, over the years, she noticed a poor economic growth and a lot of corruption within the government. She mentions the great civil servants strike of 1993 which she was part of as a Department of Industry staff member.

Mrs. Temakon says service delivery dropped after that. She also mentions that unemployment grew rapidly during the ‘90s and there was so much anger towards the government which also led to the VNPF riot of 24 February of 1998.

This is still something she is shaken about till today as she was employed by the then VNPF chairman Dinh Van Than. She says all of Mr. Dinh’s businesses were vandalized and she says she escaped death very narrowly.

After she left Mr. Dinh’s business, she started up her own Meri’s consulting and started doing consulting for William Edgel who had formed the Melanesian Trading Service which was intended to be the first seasonal work recruiting agency.

Edgel, as a former roving negotiator for Vanuatu’s independence, had in-depth knowledge of international relations and also had knowledge of how the Reserve Bank of Vanuatu worked.

Mrs. Temakon says while doing consulting she continued to see a spike in unemployment and a drastic fall in the economy. This is what further drove her to continue to find a way forward. She also mentions a trade imbalance after the introduction of the Comprehensive Reform Program in 1998 as she remembers a VT18 billion low export compared to a VT69 billion import.

Failed foreign aid

Mrs. Temakon also speaks on foreign aid and says most of the time it has been a big failure to us as there is a boomerang effect. Aid comes into the country and most of the money is spent on all the donor country’s technical advisors who come here, and most people in the rural areas never see the benefit of the money.

Mrs. Temakon saw their proposed plan of labour mobility as an alternative way of Australia helping Vanuatu to the traditional way of donating aid money.

She believed if Australia allowed Ni Vanuatu unskilled workers into their country to work on the farms, it would help the people directly as the money would go straight to them instead of having to pass through many channels like aid money.

Donor funds also have too many conditions and strings attached and it never supports economic growth of our country.

Mrs. Temakon says if Australia was thinking of helping Vanuatu in terms of economic empowerment and alleviation from poverty, seasonal employment would be the best way.

Mrs. Temakon also believed that asking for donor money all the time, like our leaders always do, defeated our purpose of independence.

Australian Response

An appeal on behalf of the people of Vanuatu was made by Mrs. Temakon to the then Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer in 2003. This was based on a bilateral agreement between the 2 nations.

Minister Downer, replied negatively and said it would not be possible as Vanuatu does not qualify for the working holiday visa which a few other countries qualify for.

Mrs. Temakon says this refusal was seen as a contradiction to the Pacer plus agreement.

To reply to the Minister, Temakon decided she needed proof of support and she needed to collect signatures.

Petitions were done on Santo, Pentecost as well as in Port Vila. A total of 9,363 signatures were collected, she said.

A petition was made to Minister Downer on the 23rd of October 2005 and on November 2nd that year Australia still disagreed to this proposal.

She did not give up there, in 2006 on 24 February, she forwarded the proposal to Senator John Carter, Secretary of the Australian parliament senate committee. Mr. Carter asked for more submissions and the second submission was handed to him.

She explained that Ni Vanuatu are non-travelling people and have a strong attachment to their home land, this in turn makes them law abiding people who would not cause trouble for Australia.

On the 21st of March 2006, Mr. Carter thanked Mrs. Temakon, his committee accepted the document, made it a public document and protected it.

New Zealand opens up first

Though negotiations were first made with Australia, New Zealand opened up its doors for Recognized seasonal employment (RSE) work in horticulture in 2007.

This was made possible with help from the World Bank under the presidency of Manjula Latria, who persuaded the New Zealand government and helped them to see the benefit of having Ni Vanuatu workers.

Temakon worked free in setting up plans as she believed it would benefit a lot of people, despite being ridiculed by a lot of government leaders, the general public and even members of her own family.

Many people today are benefiting a lot from seasonal work.

She says once RSE was up, Lionel Kaluat who was the Labour Commissioner back then, terminated her contract to be a recruiting agent for seasonal work.

Does seasonal work today reflect the original plans?

Mrs. Temakon says seasonal work these days, does not reflect any of the original plans.

She says back then apart from giving people a chance to go overseas for work, there was a plan for a compulsory education fund, where workers would remit some money on a monthly basis into this fund for paying for school fees of their children and eventually all children.

Their calculations were based on 8,840 workers remitting VT393,891 annually.

Workers were also meant to remit a certain amount of money back to their spouses and kids on a monthly basis as a compulsory rule.

Mrs. Temakon says these days there are more workers than the above figure and she says had the compulsory fund been approved in 2007, Vanuatu would have a lot of money by now after 14 years.

Mrs. Temakon says the New Zealand government disagreed to this plan of the education fund and compulsory remittances to spouses and kids of workers, as they believed it was infringing on the rights of the workers.

Mrs. Temakon says these days the government is touching VNPF money for scholarships and has landed in a lot of mess. Mrs. Temakon says they are touching members’ money and that is very risky.

She says should the compulsory fund have been established, Vanuatu would be well of and not depending on any scholarship funds from donor nations or even VNPF members funds.

The original plans were to only have seasonal work for 15 – 20 years as she believed had the original plans gone ahead, Vanuatu would be well off now with more educated Ni Vanuatu who would have turned this nation around and created more industry here, with a better economy, terminating the need for anyone to travel to Australia or New Zealand to work.

Mrs. Temakon works as an assistant law lecturer at the Emalus campus of the University of the South pacific.

All statements by Mrs. Temakon here are based from her own experiences and do not represent the University’s views.

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