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John Roughan: Solomon Guest Workers!

Solomon Guest Workers!

By John Roughan
1 August 2004

Australia currently spends big bucks in the Solomons. So too does New Zealand! Australia's first year contribution, for instance, is more than a billion dollars and it intends to continue its generosity for many years to come. Of course much of this aid flows right back to Australia through high salaries of its citizens holding jobs here in our country. But still Australia, New Zealand and other country's money is flowing into our country in a big way.

However, a great way to have these dollars remain in the Solomons, reduce the cost of overseas' aid programs and strengthen our country all in one step is to allow young Solomon Islanders work in Australia and New Zealand. Guest-worker schemes already are a vibrant part of many European economies. Germany, France, Belgium, etc. for instance, continuously invite workers from other countries to do the work that local people refuse to do or are reluctant to undertake.

Of course European countries in the beginning years experienced teething problems but on the whole I know of no European country that has cancelled out the Guest Worker program. On the whole, both countries--the host as well as the sending country--find them profitable.: The host country gains a reliable work force able and willing to do work that locals will not do and the guest worker finds well paying work. Both sides benefit!

Could such a guest-worker scheme root between Australia/New Zealand and Solomons. In the beginning, worker numbers would be limited, say to the number of Australians/New Zealanders currently working in the Solomons. After a period of time, on review of the scheme, numbers could be adjusted to what is called for.

What kind of work could Solomon Islanders do? I know from first hand my own Irish cousins, nieces and uncles laboured in Australia's orchids harvesting fruit. Others were on farms. Some worked Australian roads and still others found temporary factory jobs. If Irish workers from the other side of the world found work in Australia, isn't it possible for our people to do much the same?

I am not thinking about Solomon Islanders who are professionally qualified--medical doctors, academics and others--(although in very small numbers), have gained permanent residency status in Australia. The guest worker scheme is more about secondary school leavers or above who have minimum education levels and would travel to Australia for a maximum of three to four months--during the harvest period, for instance.

Currently Australian policy makers worry about a Solomon Islands' Exit Strategy. How and when will Australian people now in country--a military contingent, dozens of police officers, public servants, planners, etc--leave the Solomons? In 10 years? Or 20 or even 25? Exit Strategy ideas assume that the future of Solomons and Australia is a return to what it was before the 24 July 2003 intervention! Is this realistic?

New York's 9/11 terrorist attack changed not only that city but literally the whole world. Solomons' 24/7 has done much the same to us. How can we as a country return to what we were before? Even more so if after 15 years of close Australian/New Zealand intervention. Shouldn't all our nations be thinking of different kinds of futures which entwines nations into something much closer than it was two years ago?

State instability, endemic poverty and increasing population pressures are long term issues, not easily responded to by the quick fix. Opening up a guest worker opportunity to Melanesia (PNG, Bougainville and Vanuatu would have to be considered as well) reduces the 'them and us' attitude. Intimate, first hand information and experience of each other's country undermines the idea that we are all so different. Perhaps a stint in each other's country, not as tourists or passing through, but rubbing shoulders in the work place could have more to do with rooting out corruption, strengthen civil society's good governance work and create a strong investment climate than simply pumping in money and accenting only a one way traffic of personnel.

A Melanesian guest worker scheme should not be automatically dismissed. In January 2003, Alexander Downer, Australia's Foreign Minister, dismissed the idea that Australia would ever think of sending troops to our country. Yet, in less than 6 months more than 2,000 of them landed on our shores. Are our countries big enough to at least think about the idea?


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