Samoa cannot afford to miss overseas labour opportunities

The news that the New Zealand Government is to grant a border exemption to 2000 Pacific workers is cause for early Christmas celebration.

On Friday, the New Zealand Government announced that 2000 workers from the Pacific would be deployed early next year to pick fruit for the nation's horticulture and wine industries.

The Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Commerce Industry and Labour, Pulotu Lyndon Chu-Ling, said he had yet to have been notified by the New Zealand Government about the decision. 

But nonetheless, he was happy to have heard the news and said that Samoa stood at the ready to provide for a shortfall in seasonal work in New Zealand. 

“It’s a positive outcome and I’m glad to announce before the Government gives out any official statement and conclusion, the workers’ preparations are all ready to roll,” he said. 

“The Government’s preparations for the seasonal workers through the Ministry have been on standby for a long time now.”

There is a critical need to ensure workers’ safety and appropriate quarantine conditions are met at a time of global pandemic before any such deployments can begin. 

But now is also a time of immense opportunity for Samoa to offset its economic downturn - one we cannot afford to miss out on. 

There is massive economic opportunity in our region in the form of unmet demand for Pacific labour - but up until now, Samoa has found itself left out of one of the most lucrative markets. 

That must change. Overseas employment must form a critical part of our Government’s policies to counter rising unemployment in this country.

In yesterday’s edition of the Samoa Observer we saw the unfortunate news that for the fourth straight quarter employment in this country has declined, this time by 0.3 per cent (“Employment numbers continue to decline”).

The Government must look for opportunities to reverse this trend.

But with Samoa’s economy undergoing a significant contraction of 11.6 per cent according to the latest Central Bank of Samoa figures it is unliklely such opportunities will be found within the country's borders for now. 

We currently have the two largest economies in the region, Australia and New Zealand, staring down a potential food shortage due to a lack of foreign workers caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We encourage our Government to seize the opportunities presented by these shortfalls and to do everything it can to ensure that Samoans, not workers from other nations, are chosen to fill these labour supply gaps.

In September some 160 workers from Vanuatu signed deals to pick fruit in Australia for up to nine months, earning wages of AUD$25 per hour. 

Earflier this month more than 170 seasonal workers from Fiji signed three-year contracts to work in Australia. 

And this week, the Agriculture Minister for Australia’s largest state, New South Wales, Adam Marshall, confirmed that another 160 workers from the Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu were being urgently flown into that state to address a shortfall in tomato pickers.

Their arrival is in addition to another 350 skilled workers who have been flown into work on the state’s abattoirs.  

Their presence is a drop in the proverbial bucket when compared to the amount of foreign labour needed for a successful Australian Summer harvest.

Some 40,000 foreign workers are needed to pick the fruit for Australia’s Summer harvest alone. 

Currently, there are several thousand workers who have remained stuck in the country, including Samoans, on extended visas once their home countries’ borders closed due to the pandemic.

But a major shortfall remains.

A spokesman for Australia’s peak lobby group for farm growers, Tyson Cattle, estimates the shortfall of workers in the country to be around 26,000 with the Summer harvest just around the corner. 

"We're just looking at any option and happy to work with the Government for any option to get people on-farm, because at the moment it's desperate times for a lot of growers and they just need a workforce,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Last week the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, said he was open to bringing more Pacific workers into the country to address the shortfall but did not elaborate.

Given the recent COVID-19 scare in Samoa, with two testing positive for the virus (despite the Government now saying they are likely “historical” cases who are no longer infectious) concerns about safety must be paramount. 

But many of these seasonal work contracts are several months long. 

These workers can be sustainably sent to Australia. And there is every chance that one of the many promising coronavirus vaccine trials will be ready for use by the time they return. 

Samoa is one of nine countries to form part of Australia’s Pacific Labour Scheme. Only about 700 of our workers are employed in the country.

So far some 22,000 workers from Pacific states have been pre-vetted to work on Australian farms under the scheme.

But granting them entry depends on Australian states granting them entry in this time of the pandemic. 

With economies across the region in free-fall, the race to get to the front of this queue will be fierce.

And so far Samoans have been left behind with none of our workers among the first batch to have been approved for entry to Australia to help address the country’s labour shortage.

The Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Labour's Lemalu Nele Leila said the Government is eager to see some of the nearly 3000 workers we have on standby to be deployed overseas before Christmas. 

Ensuring that our workers secure their place in the queue of nations seeking to fill the labour shortage in Australia is going to require a mix of diplomacy and lobbying. 

Recently Samoa has been balancing on both wings in its diplomatic relations between China and Australia.

But with the country sliding into an economic depression, there is no better time for Samoa to call in a diplomatic favour - livelihoods are depending upon it. 

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