A Pacific leader has called on New Zealand and Australia to live up to their “Pacific family” rhetoric and look into a European Union-style free movement of people around the region.
Samoan Prime Minister Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa also revealed she suggested the idea to Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni at a recent meeting in Fiji but was told it would only see “all other people in the islands” wanting to come and live in New Zealand and Australia.
The Green Party, which has been calling for visa waivers to be introduced for Pacific countries, says it supports Fiamē's proposal and wants the Government to seriously look into it.
Fiamē's comments come as geopolitical tensions in the Pacific heat up and as New Zealand reviews the efficacy of current labour mobility laws - such as the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme - to ensure the Pacific workers here are protected while not creating a “brain drain” back in the island nations.
New Zealand is also assessing how it can expand the labour mobility arrangements into the meat and seafood processing, and care and construction sectors.
Fiamē, Samoa’s first female prime minister and who is visiting Australia this week, said she acknowledged her idea was “very contentious” but it was time to have a discussion.
She recently visited Europe and looked at the concept of the European common market, which allows the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour across national borders.
“We’ve been talking about that in the Pacific for a long time and part of that common market is free access of people around the region.
“I think we need to explore that in the Pacific,” she told an audience at an event hosted by the Lowy Institute in Canberra.
Fiamē said she had raised it last month with Sepuloni, who is also Associate Foreign Minister for the Pacific Region, at the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji.
“The Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand, who is part Sāmoan and part Tongan, said, ‘Oh, but all other people in the islands will want to come and live in New Zealand and Australia’,” Fiamē said.
“But... if we have easy access, people can just come and do their business, visit their relatives, go on holiday in New Zealand and Australia, but go back home, and not have such a difficult time coming into Australia, or New Zealand.”
Sepuloni told the Herald labour mobility was a focus but the Government was not considering any other measures outside expanding the RSE scheme.
Fiamē said she also raised it with Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong, who “didn’t say anything”.
Fiamē said she wanted to acknowledge the support of New Zealand and Australia through Covid-19 and the “important contribution” of labour mobility.
But they needed to make sure the benefits were maximised and negative impacts minimised for those countries sending labour.
“Pacific countries with limited human resource capacities cannot sustain development efforts with regular brain drain,” she said.
“Of great importance to Pacific-sending countries is the commitment to ensure that workers’ rights and welfare conditions are socialised, safeguarded and implemented in a timely manner.”
Samoa recently reviewed its Labour Mobility Scheme and introduced a new policy to address such impacts. It currently has 1200 workers involved in schemes in New Zealand and Australia.
Green Party Pacific spokesman Teanau Tuiono said freedom of movement across the Pacific also covering employment would be a good way to show New Zealand was committed to being part of the “Pacific family”.
He said there were many issues with the RSE scheme, which Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Saunoamaali’i Karanina Sumeo said last year after an investigation bordered on “modern-day slavery” for some workers.
“That scheme needs to be overhauled, there are appalling conditions that should never have been happening.”
He said he disagreed with Sepuloni that people would leave the islands, saying it would lift pay and education across the region and simply mean people could more easily return.
“If we say we are part of the Pacific family we have to show what that means. It means making sure visa waivers are in place and taking a good look at Fiamē's comments.”
The Government has confirmed it is reviewing some of the visitor visa requirements for Pacific countries, including Samoa.
University of Auckland Honorary Associate Professor of Economics Robert Scollay last year said broadening labour mobility was the “greatest potential contribution New Zealand can make to Pacific development”.
He said it also had the “added advantage” that China would not realistically be able to match such arrangements. He also noted that Australian politicians were making it a focus.
This year the Australian Government introduced a green card-style system to bring 3000 Pacific workers into the country every year and offer them a pathway to citizenship.
New Zealand’s RSE scheme has increased from 5000 workers in 2007 to 19,000 workers this year from nine Pacific nations to work in the horticulture and viticulture industries.
There are currently no pathways to residency for those workers.
Pacific labour mobility a “key issue” - MFAT
Official advice provided to Sepuloni in February by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) stated addressing Pacific labour mobility was a “key issue”.
It said the landscape had evolved “significantly over the last few years, mainly due to a “massive uptick in recruitment under Australia’s scheme”.
The Pacific-wide Pacer Plus free trade agreement had also increased focus alongside geopolitical developments, while Covid-19 had disrupted various schemes.
MFAT officials said some Pacific countries were cautious of a “brain drain” and their own labour shortages while others “have expressed a desire for more opportunities”.
MBIE here was undertaking an RSE policy review to ensure it meets a “gold standard” and to improve pastoral care, accommodation and worker benefits.
MBIE was also developing new Pacific labour mobility programmes in meat and seafood processing, which could be in place by next year; and care and construction sectors, which would take a bit longer.
MFAT is also redesigning its programme to make sure it “maximises the development impact of labour mobility for partners and supports their overall social and economic development and resilience”.
In her wide-ranging speech, Fiamē ālso touched on climate change and the need for unity amid the current geopolitical situation, with China and the United States competing for influence making the region “increasingly crowded”.
She also reminded partner countries to consult with Pacific island countries and took a shot at the increasing narrative of the “Indo-Pacific”, which they were never consulted on.