Apr 16, 2021 Last Updated 9:08 PM, Apr 13, 2021

Hope on labour mobility

There's good news for Vanuatu’s seasonal workers this week with the announcement that 170 workers will be able to go to Australia for the mango season.

The workers will go to the Northern Territory in a pilot program designed to meet industry shortages.

National Farmers’ Federation Chief Executive Officer, Tony Mahar says it’s a “pragmatic decision”. Under the arrangement, eligible workers must return a negative COVID-19 test before departing and be required to self-isolate for 14-days after arriving in Australia, before commencing work. Mango farmers will also have to show that they are unable to secure local workers.

“No one wants to see fruit and vegetables wasted and this trial will help make sure that doesn’t happen," Australian agriculture minister David Littleproud says. “This trial will see up to 170 workers under the Seasonal Worker Programme come to Australia to help with the 2020 harvest, with more workers to potentially follow subject to a review of the first cohort and approval for additional numbers by the NT Government.”

Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu are eligible to participate in the Pacific Labour Scheme. It’s unclear at this stage, which of these nations may send workers to the Northern Territory if the trial goes well and it is extended.

Labour mobility programs are a likely topic of discussion at the Pacific Island Forum Economics Ministers Meeting (FEMM) next week as both hosting countries (Australia and New Zealand) and supplying countries are FEMM participants.

The Director of the Development Policy  Centre at the Australian National University, Stephen Howes says Pacific governments need to be prepared to let their workers leave for seasonal work. Similarly, New Zealand-based research fellow, Charlotte Bedford says there will be a demand for labour for the approaching season (September/October) but there are still a number of logistical questions to be addressed such as which workers will be employed (e.g. those who may have just returned or those who have missed out on deployment), and who pays for quarantine.

“When workers return at the moment, our current quarantine requires they will have to self-isolate in a quarantine facility for two weeks and employers are very keen to get in place a work bubble so that workers can go back to the work site and quarantine on the work site and start straight away,” Bedford says.

University of the South Pacific Senior Economist Neelesh Goundar believes there would be an appetite for this work from Fijians.

“ If organised well and if it’s targeted well, there certainly will be lots of workers who will be willing to go and work until the Fiji economy rebounds or tourism opens…if something can be implemented sooner [rather] than later, that would go a long way to helping households, especially those who have lost jobs here in Fiji.”

Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor has declined to comment on the negotiations over her successor as head of the regional organisation, saying only “I have a job to do and I’m going to do it right up until the last day which is the 15th of January.”

Dame Meg made the comments in the leadup to the Forum Economic Ministers Meeting next week. Economics officials are meeting this week in preparation for the main proceedings.

Islands Business understands there are currently five contenders for the position of Secretary General; Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna, Marshall Islands Ambassador to the US, Gerald Zackios, Tonga's international civil servant and development economist,  Amelia Kinahoi Siamomua; former Pacific Community (SPC) Secretary General, Solomon Islander Dr Jimmie Rodgers and former Fiji Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola.

The change in leadership will come at a critical time; as Pacific Islands meet the economic, health and social challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic, manage the sometimes conflicting priorities and activities of development partners in the region, and endeavour to keep climate change action and the “Blue Pacific” narrative at the top of the agenda, all while keeping regionalism alive.

Tuvalu, as Chair of the Forum, had suggested the vote for the new Director General be deferred until next year, but there seems to be little appetite for that amongst other Forum members. Dame Meg says the Forum Chair is still consulting with members on the matter.

Last week the Coordinator of the Pacific Network on Globalisation, Maureen Penjueli said with Vanuatu’s deferral of the Forum Chairmanship until next year, Dame Meg’s imminent departure and the recent departure of her deputy, Cristelle Pratt for the ACP Secretariat, “we are now operating in a leadership vacuum around who is going to champion leadership in the Pacific.

“I think leadership, visionary leadership is quite critical right now.”

Penjueli says it’s important to understand “where regional leadership lies to deal with a whole lot of issues. Whether its unemployment, whether it’ movement of people, whether its debt, whether it’s financing, where and who will champion the Pacific.”

Most recently, Forum  members have cooperated effectively  through the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway to move COVID testing kits, personal protection equipment, supplies, personnel and repatriated citizens through the region. Yet the vote for the Secretary General has the potential to raise tensions. Palau’s President Tommy Remengesau Jr has already plainly stated that that ‘it’s Micronesia’s turn’ and last year the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and Palau all said they supported Ambassador Zackios’ candidacy.

Traditionally a Fijian Secretary General would be an unusual appointment, as Fiji hosts the Forum Secretariat, although Ratu Inoke is well known to regional leaders as a former Foreign and Defence Minister. He represented Fiji at the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting in Samoa in 2017,  in 2016 in Pohnpei, FSM and in PNG in 2015.

While Dame Meg wouldn’t be drawn on the specifics of the SG vote, she did say that she personally felt “I’ve not driven hard enough about issues  on women and public participation of women in public life and also at senior levels of the regional bureaucracies,” noting her two former female Deputy Secretary Generals had now departed. She says unless a woman is elected as Secretary General (and the only female candidate is Tonga’s Siamomua), the organisation will be very much driven by men in the senior positions.

“I don’t believe that I have invested enough in young women that are coming through the organisation. I still have six months left and what I am doing is working closely with our human resources people. It’s not about their training, it’s not about their technical abilities, it’s about confidence. It’s about the confidence to be able to give an opinion and to be able to back it up,” Dame Meg

The Pacific today faces three crises: a health crisis, an economic crisis and the ongoing climate crisis, and Pacific Islands Forum Economic Ministers will discuss all three when they meet (virtually) next week.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded the scale of the economic impact on Pacific people and communities has become clearer – and Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General, Dame Meg Taylor says for some it is ‘catastrophic’.

Increased hunger, malnutrition and poverty is being reported by civil society organisations. Job losses, business failures and plummeting remittances are telling and industries such as the tourism sector face the prospect of decades in recovery. Governments are scrambling to put in place safety nets and cope with staggeringly bad COVID-related economic forecasts.

Dame Meg says it is time to think out of the box and act regionally.

She understands the tendency by Pacific countries to turn inwards during the pandemic.

“It is only natural when something like this happens,” she told reporters ahead of the Forum Economic Ministers’ meeting.

“We …look at what is happening to myself, what is happening to my family, what is happening to my friends, what is happening in my community, what is happening in my country.

Dame Meg Taylor says the ministers will focus on economic priorities to contain the spread of COVID-19 and recover from the pandemic to build “a strong platform for economic stability and resilience in the long term.”

She stressed the need for new and innovative approaches to development challenges based on self-reliance, pointing to the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway as an example of effective Pacific collective action.

“It is the only region in the world that has done this. And why is this important? Because it is the political space, making sure that the technical assistance can get in, medical assistance can get in, we can ship cargo and customs can be adhered to, that we can repatriate citizens, we can land aircraft, immigration facilities are all in place, and trying to make this work is no mean feat, as you will understand.”

Dame Meg is encouraging Forum members to look beyond their national boundaries, and for development partners to think beyond bilateralism, in order to facilitate “better and deeper coordination and collaboration.”

“It is, I think it is honest for me to say, that the development partners have really approached COVID with a very much bi-lateral approach. And we have watched this, and we have watched the geo-strategic issues play out.”

Dame Meg says the Forum and other regional organisations are also looking at digitalisation as a priority; to survey what infrastructure is in place or coming online plus prices and accessibility,  and then explore how it can support the digital economy, health, education and other development goals.

“ I think that it is an opportunity that we need to look at. I know that development banks like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) are looking at this through Southeast Asia  and other countries.  We have asked them to have a conversation with us in terms of what can be done in this region.

“But everything costs money and everything that we get from banks, unless it is coming from the International Development Assistance in the World Bank, everything will one day have to be paid back.   This  is  the big issue for us in the region on how we are going to be able to service this debt over time.”

A paper on the Pacific’s own climate-infrastructure fund, the Pacific Resilience Facility, —with added  content on the COVID pandemic—is also going to ministers. The Facility aims to raise US$1.5 billion and fund small projects  through the interest generated.

“It is really important that we start thinking of how we can help ourselves, “ Dame Meg says.

“I think that there is a huge tendency in the International Development space every document that you pick up is about how much the Pacific relies on everybody else to do things for them.  

“You know I am really sick of that!  I'm sure that a lot of you who have worked around this are also tired of it too. It is not as if we are people who  do not know how to look after ourselves but wherever they have been good ideas put forward,  it is amazing how people think that ‘oh why did you think of that?’  And this is exactly the kind of resistance that we got on this from some of the development banks; we are doing that so why would you want to do it? 

“We have got to start helping our countries get systems in place in countries where we can maximise funding that comes in so that countries can help themselves.”

Dame Meg acknowledges that thinking outside the box and building on the regional identity of the ‘Blue Pacific’ continent - launched by leaders in 2017 - is not always easy.

Sharing of experiences of individuals and of countries is important.

“I hope that this is what Forum Economic Ministers will do – to discuss and share their experiences and support each other,” she said.

Forum Economic officials meet this week, with the Ministerial due to open on Tuesday next week.

The Asian Development Bank has announced a series of grants to Pacific nations. US$13.3million has been made available to 10 nations—Cook Islands, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands,  Tuvalu and Vanuatu—to help finance their COVID-19 responses. This is the latest round of ADB  emergency grans for the Pacific. In April, the ADB provided $2 million from the fund to help FSM, Marhsall Islands, Nauru, Tonga and Tuvalu respond to COVID-19.

Separately, the ADB has approved a $20 million loan to Palau to help it provide for COVID-19 and respond to its impact on the economy. An ADB statement says the loan will finance the purchase of ventilators for Belau National Hospital, establish a COVID-19 hotline for public inquiries, and fund overtime and hazard pay for frontline health workers. It will also support Palau’s government to provide concessional loans to local businesses; benefits for the unemployed and assistance finding temporary work in areas such as tourism, the environment, and elderly care; support for free pre-school and childcare for lower income families; and subsidies for utilities such as electricity and water. Palau received a $15 million policy-based loan from the ADB in April.

The ADB has also approved a separate $20 million grant for Samoa to upgrade isolation rooms in hospitals, strengthen quarantine areas, and procure medical supplies. It will help train frontline workers to prevent infections and support the payment of unemployment benefits, cash transfers, and higher pensions for the elderly. The hospitality industry will receive support through lower electricity tariffs and deferred contributions to the Samoa National Provident Fund. Several measures will target support for women, such as grants for village women’s committees to promote rural health and sanitation practices.

Islands Business correspondent Nic Maclellan has been awarded the Sean Dorney Grant for Pacific journalism for 2020.

Established by the Walkley Foundation, the Sean Dorney Grant for Pacific Journalism aims to encourage more and better journalism about the Pacific Islands region by Australian media professionals and news outlets.

Making the announcement this week, the Foundation said judges were so impressed with the quality of the applications this year that they decided to award grants of $10,000 each to two deserving recipients, Maclellan and Jo Chander.

Maclellan will use the grant to report on  "France and Pacific self-determination during the COVID crisis"

 The judges were excited by Nic Maclellan's proposal to examine the dynamic relationships between Australia, France and the Pacific in the context of anxiety about growing Chinese influence. His proposal to focus on the perspectives of the Kanak and Maohi peoples – including strong independence movements – in an environment where Australia is increasingly working in partnership with France raises a fascinating set of issues which will play out as New Caledonia heads towards another self-determination referendum and the region recovers from Covid-19.

“Nic is a tremendously experienced and insightful journalist, and Islands Business is very proud to regularly feature his reports and analysis of our region's key political issues. The decision  to award him the grant is well-deserved, and a testament to the quality of his reporting, and the experience he brings to his subject matter,” said Islands Business Managing Editor, Samantha Magick.

The applications were judged by Sean Dorney, Former Pacific Correspondent, ABC, Sue Ahearn, Journalist and Consultant, Michael Bachelard, Walkley Judging Board and Investigations Editor, The Age, Jemima Garrett, Freelance Journalist specialising in the Pacific and Alexander Rheeney, Co Editor, Samoa Observer.

Click through to read some of Nic's most recent stories:

French Prosecutor pursues Temaru (June 2020)

FLNKS demands strict border controls (May 2020)

Pathway across the Pacific (April 2020)

Indepth: Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Meg Taylor (April 2020)

Gaining credits for Kyoto (March 2020)

Throwing coal on the fire (Jan 2020)

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