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Jobs for Pacific Islanders or our own Aborigines?

By Helen Hughes - posted Thursday, 19 October 2006

Recently the Cairns Post drew attention to the failure of backpackers to follow their usual fruit picking trail from Bowen to the Atherton tablelands because Cyclone Larry blew away the Innisfail banana crop. There appear to be 2,600 jobs picking mangoes, 600 picking lychees, 600 picking logans, 200 picking limes, 100 picking custard apples, 1,000 picking avocados and 300 picking mandarins.

The growers are looking for takers for these $20-an-hour jobs. They have been advised to import Islanders from the South Pacific to fill them.

Bringing in Islanders from the Pacific would involve paying airfares, paying for health checks to keep out HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, paying for criminal checks because of the dangers of organised criminal gangs preying on pickers, and paying for health and other insurance costs. The costs of returning pickers who do not work out have to be covered.


Seasonal workers’ schemes require government-to-government agreements. They involve holding back a substantial proportion of pickers’ wages to prevent “overstayers” from becoming a problem. Additional costs are thus considerable.

Why are growers turning to such costly solutions when North Queensland and adjacent Northern Territory policies have large numbers of unemployed, welfare dependent Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (and other long term unemployed people) who would greatly benefit from taking fruit-picking jobs?

Only 15 per cent of Indigenous adults (aged 15 to 64) in remote Australia work at mainstream jobs. The rest - 85 per cent - are dependent on income support payments, unemployment benefits and the CDEP (Commonwealth Development Employment Projects), known as “sit down” money.

This situation is not of the Aborigines’ and Torres Strait Islanders’ making. It does not reflect their choices. For a generation they have been relegated to “homelands” that, like the Bantustans of South Africa’s era of apartheid, are mostly in the inhospitable outback where there is no economic possibility of earning a decent living.

Schooling has been abysmal, housing conditions have accurately been described as Third World and health is so shocking from infancy that people live 20 years less than in the rest of Australia. Welfare dependence has made it very difficult to take the risks inherent in moving from welfare cheques of $200 to $300 a week to a few weeks of decent wages of $800 or more.

Fruit picking has been one of the ways in which Aborigines from the “homelands” and from country town “fringes” could start to participate in mainstream labour markets. The costs of getting them to fruit-picking areas and of providing reasonable support in those areas are negligible compared to the costs of bringing in Pacific Islanders.


The Federal Government has been spending large sums on getting Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders into jobs. A Centerlink, Jobcentre and Work-for-the Dole bureaucracy is paid for endless mickey-mouse job-readiness, but has been unable to identify and meet large fruit-picking opportunities that come up regularly every year. Growers have had to rely on backpackers finding their way to North Queensland. A veritable support industry, including not-for-profit organisations, is thriving without doing its job. Present incentives to the job searchers are clearly not effective. Funding should be cut off until they perform.

The World Bank’s Sydney office has become involved in domestic Australian debates because of its worldwide shift from economic development with job creation to aid as welfare. Countries like Australia are to add immigration to their aid to solve developing country problems.

Large aid transfers have not led to rising standards of living in the Pacific. Nor will guest worker schemes provide employment numbers that will make a difference to Pacific living standards. There are about 1.5 million unemployed and underemployed men and women in the Pacific. Employing a few thousand on the Atherton Tablelands and elsewhere in Australia cannot be even a drop in the bucket of Pacific unemployment.

Australia and the Pacific both have to confront the problems that face them.

Getting Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders off welfare into decent, mainstream employment is critical to ending the disgraceful conditions in remote “homelands” that shame Australia. Fruit picking provides an opportunity for a transition from welfare that would also immediately relieve fruit growers’ labour shortages. The organisations that are being paid to find jobs for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders must do their job.

Population growth has exceeded economic growth in the Pacific for 30 years. The elites that have benefitted from large aid flows are unwilling to reform their economies to find employment for their people. They want more aid. But without agricultural development and urban jobs Pacific living standards will continue to stagnate and instability will continue to thrive.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on October 11, 2006.

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About the Author

Professor Helen Hughes AO is a senior fellow of the Centre for Independent Studies.

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