John Roughan: PIF Guest Worker Scheme & More
Guest Worker Scheme, Higher Education and other topics!
By John Roughan
31 October 2005
Last week's Pacific Islands Forum meeting in PNG focused on many different areas of life dear to national leaders and their people across the Pacific. Certainly one hot topic was the idea of allowing unskilled island workers into the region's two biggest economies, Australia and New Zealand. However, Australia's PM, John Howard, argued against the idea while New Zealand's PM, Helen Clark, was much more open to it.
Both these countries, of course, already open their doors to Pacific Island professionals--medical doctors, academics and others--although in small numbers, to take up residence and hold down jobs. A guest worker scheme, however, is more about secondary school leavers or those with minimum education levels. Such workers would be allowed to travel to Australia and New Zealand for a three to four month period during the fruit harvest period, for instance.
In such a scheme, both countries--the host as well as the sending country--find it profitable. The host country gains a reliable work-force able and willing to take on work that the locals will not do. The guest worker, on the other hand, finds well paying work. Both sides benefit.
Guest worker schemes are actually strengthening around the world. There's no end in sight! European countries, for instance, have operated such schemes for years now and there is no shortage of workers willing to travel to take up the work local people turn up their noses at. It is estimated that Guest Worker schemes generate more than $200 billion in remittances (funds sent back to workers' families) each year. That's three times the worth of official development aid that comes from rich and powerful nations. But Guest Worker money comes with no strings attached, it is wholly owned by the worker and family and most importantly, it generates little dependency.
Perhaps a stint in each other's country, not as a tourist or a passing-through visitor, but rubbing shoulders in the work place would have more to do with rooting out corruption, strengthening civil society's good governance work and creating a strong investment climate than simply pumping in tons of money and a one way traffic of personnel as we currently experience in the Solomons.
In spite of John Howard's reluctance to back a Guest Worker scheme, Solomon Islanders must not simply give up on the idea. In 1999, our own PM, Bart Ulufa'alu, while our nation was weakening, asked Australia for a contingent of soldiers to help us fight the Social Unrest of the time. Unfortunately, Australia refused his request. Our next PM, Manasseh Sogovare, asked help from the UN and received only silence. Just six months before the RAMSI force did land on our shores, Australia's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, dismissed the idea that Australia would ever think of sending troops to our country. Yet, within a few months more than 2,000 of them landed on our shores.
If Australia accepts Europeans for seasonal work, then it seems only sensible that a labor force practically in its own back yard would be acceptable some time soon. It took three of our PMs (Ulufa'alu, Sogavare and finally Sir Allan) over a six year period to convince Australian leadership to come in and help us. Hopefully the Guest Worker idea will take root faster than that!
The topic of higher education was another area of Solomons concern. Although this topic wasn't surfaced at the Forum, New Zealand's PM spoke to the Solomon Islands Cabinet on the topic. Prime Minister Helen Clark voiced out her concern loud and clear. She told our Cabinet that she was worried that it was spending too much on university schooling and too little on basic, primary and secondary education. This trend must not continue, she said.
NZ's PM knows what she's speaking about. Currently, New Zealand pumps in more than $40 million for basic and primary education for our country's youngest. She's putting her money where her mouth is! Primary and basic education are literally the backbone of the nation. Of course we need higher education for as many of our up and coming students as possible but not at the expense of tens of thousands of our kids in primary classes.
Pacific-wide meetings act as worthwhile mirrors for leaders. Topics discussed among heads of state in such places have a way of waking everyone up. It's important that leadership take notice of what is publicly said, listen to the arguments offered by different leaders but in the last analysis the nation state has to come down to what is best for the majority, usually the poorest. A Guest Worker scheme offers many of our young people a chance to study the world first hand, gain important skills and at the same time, help out the family. Quality basic, primary and secondary schooling is best for the majority of our people and must not be sacrificed for the benefit of the few at the higher end of education..