The opportunities that labour mobility schemes like the RSE (New Zealand) and SWP (Australia) present are many and varied.
These schemes have already contributed to significant livelihood improvements for individuals, families and communities in Vanuatu and other Pacific island countries.
After a very slow start, the Australian Seasonal Workers’ Program is building significant momentum. Influential people at the Development Policy Centre and the World Bank are using terms like ‘triple win’ and predicting increased income to the tune of $10 billion by 2040 across the region if these schemes are expanded and developed.
It’s very exciting and it means there is a lot to talk about. But there is a danger that this conversation is becoming one-dimensional. Some voices are not being heard. They are the ones that are asking awkward questions or raising concerns about the overall impacts of these schemes, good bad and indifferent.
Some of these questions were raised during a ‘Coffee and Controversy’ discussion during last year. It was a really good conversation, and identified a number of issues that continue to apply and need to be dealt with robustly so that the potential that these schemes present can be fully realised.
One of the issues is the rate of female participation in the schemes. It currently stands at 13% and this makes the ‘development’ people in places like the Development Policy Centre and the World Bank very twitchy indeed.
Their argument is one of gender equity: women should have the opportunity to earn money overseas just as men do. During our ‘Coffee and Controversy’ discussion we learned that the Vanuatu government had made a policy decision of not actively recruiting women in the interests of social cohesion.
This is a very important tension that requires careful investigation and discussion with all of the relevant stakeholders. It is a complex issue that cannot be swept away with a ‘because gender’ type slogan.
Another tension that arises is the impact that these schemes has on the domestic labour market and the costs to business that this incurs. When we discussed this on ‘Coffee and Controversy’ it was suggested that businesses needed to develop more flexible employment structures.
This would allow staff to spend periods of time ‘picking apples’ and then return to their jobs in Vanuatu, many of which are skilled labour positions. I followed this up with a couple of employers who were affected by this.
They reported that they had tried to put in place this sort of flexible scheme but hadn’t been able to come up with something that accommodated everyone’s needs. We need to look at this aspect more carefully and learn more about how this type of employment fits into our wider economy.
More recently, we’ve heard from chiefs who are worried that because young people are spending long periods of time each year working overseas, they are not learning enough about their culture.
They are missing custom ceremonies and not acquiring the skills to be able to conduct them in the future. Given that the new national development plan Vanuatu 2030 places culture as the bedrock of our future, there needs to be a space in which these concerns can be aired, interrogated and (hopefully) resolved.
And in amongst this there is a gap in the research. In very broad terms, the research falls into two categories. There is the research done by economists. It is all about how many people are earning how much money and how this will affect things like gross domestic product in sending and receiving countries. There is the research done by anthropologists.
It is more focused on documenting the stories of people and communities and how participation in these schemes affects their way of life. What’s missing is an objective assessment of the total impacts of these schemes, including economic gains, social costs, community impacts and perceptions, inclusiveness (or otherwise) and what this means for future policy making.
There are some very important questions that need to be examined meaningfully sooner rather than later.
But the appetite to take them on seems to be missing. In an exchange with a colleague at the Development Policy Centre, i raised this as an issue. I was met with the response that what was more important was expanding the schemes and getting more people from the bigger Pacific island countries (Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea) involved.
This seems like a very risky strategy to me. Vanuatu is considered to be a star performer in the region (the other is Tonga), and there are multiple conversations going on here about how these schemes operate now and what people hope for the future. So now is exactly the time to interrogate these issues and others to ensure that this golden goose can be fattened for longevity, not killed off in the rush for a quick result.