Wed, May 17, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Debate sparked in Australia by guest work visas

Canberra is encouraging backpackers to become 'guest workers' to solve a labor shortage, but not everybody is happy

By Ben Sandilands  /  THE OBSERVER , CANBERRA

To the amazement of city-dwelling Australians, young backpacking tourists are being lured off the continent's beaches to work on inland farms in a government initiative swiftly condemned by trade unionists as a means to drive wages down.

From July 1, new visa rules will encourage backpackers to stay in the country for up to two years, provided they work between three and six months in an expanded range of jobs that Australians don't want to take.

Fruit growers, for example, say the move will stop fruit from rotting on the trees. Opponents say the fruit rots as no Australian is interested in seasonal work that pays under A$10 (US$7.60) an hour and doesn't always include a free shed to sleep in.

Peter Mares, at the Institute of Social Research in Melbourne, says the government has shifted its original reciprocal 18-30 year old age group working holiday agreements with 20 countries from "a lifestyle experience for young travelers to a labor market program."

The national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, Bill Shorten, was blunter.

"All this is going to do is drive down wages. It's nothing short of the `Mexicanization' of Australia's rural workers," he said.

Shorten emphasized that he was not being patronizing toward Mexicans, but referring to the controversy in the US over its large population of technically illegal low-wage immigrant workers from across its southern border, whose labor, US companies and analysts claim, is crucial to corporate profits and the national interest.

Immigration Minister Senator Amanda Vanstone recently announced the changes after a prolonged campaign by the National Farmers Federation and rural commerce lobbies to find cheap labor.

The campaigning had moved into high gear over the last two southern summers as Senator Vanstone's inspectors raided increasing numbers of rural properties and carted off coach loads of cheap, hard working and predominantly Third World nationals who had overstayed their tourist visas and illegally taken employment.

The revised "Working Holiday Maker Scheme" includes visitors from most of the EU, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand. A similar deal is under negotiation with the US.

And the minister has signaled a likely deal with some of Australia's poorest Pacific island neighbors, including the troubled Solomon Islands, to allow seasonal guest workers to ease shortages in forestry, horticultural and vegetable growing industries where manual labour cannot be adequately replaced by machines.

Other small nations like Kiribati and Tonga have been urging Australia to put out an official welcome mat for some years, as they struggle to employ a tide of restless young people who envy the lifestyles of their New Zealand and Australian neighbors.

The math of the new scheme is attractive but for now highly selective in that it targets young travelers from wealthy countries rather than the Third World.

The half million or so backpackers who enter Australia annually have been surveyed as spending an average of almost A$5,000 (US$3,810) on goods and services on a typical three month trip around the country even if they don't engage in part time work.

Those who join the official scheme are liable for income tax, except that their first A$6,000 will be exempt, and they will not only receive a tax refund after their holiday, but a full refund of the compulsory 9 percent national superannuation levy paid on their behalf by employers if they earn more than A$450 a month.

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