Australia immigration: guest workers scheme proposed

24 February 2005

Australia may bring in temporary unskilled workers to fill chronic labour shortages in some areas, the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reports.

In a speech before the National Press Club on February 23, Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said she was "very interested" in the idea of a guest worker program, which has been recently proposed by the National Farmers Federation (NFF), an agriculture lobby group. Her statements also follow comments by Prime Minister John Howard a few days earlier that Australia is "running out of workers."

The proposals have been prompted by labour shortages in rural enterprises. The Sunraysia Mallee Economic Development Board, a development group based in southern Australia, has said it wants to import 2,000 workers from China over the next five years to ease a chronic lack of fruit pickers.

"We believe there will not be enough workers available in Australia and in the longer term we are going to need guest workers from China," said Andrew Millen the chief executive of the Board.

Asked whether the measure could be introduced in the Federal Government's budget to be presented on May 10, Ms. Vanstone said this would depend on whether employment conditions and the return of the workers could be ensured.

The Minister said the proposal could also be seen as a form of foreign aid - several Pacific Countries have urged Australia to open up its labour market to help their economies through remittances.

However, in spite of the Minister also promising that issues of wage guarantees and proper accommodation for the workers would be addressed, unions have criticized the plan. They say poor pay and conditions are to blame for the labour shortage.

"Guest work arrangements are exploitative of the guest and exploitative of unemployed Australians", said Bill Shorten, President of the Australian Workers' Union.

There has also been criticism from academics warning of a return to the unpleasant exploitation of indentured workers from Pacific islands a century ago, and of failing to learn from the experience of Germany, which brought in many guest workers in the 1970s and then found they did not want to leave.

See our Australia immigration pages for more details of the various Australian immigration categories.