June 23, 2008
UNEMPLOYED East Timorese youths would come to Australia each year for training and jobs under a "guest worker" proposal being championed by former Victorian premier Steve Bracks.
Mr Bracks, now an adviser to East Timorese Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, told The Age the scheme would help alleviate East Timor's crippling youth unemployment and reduce skills shortages in Australia.
Federal cabinet is expected within weeks to sign off on a plan to create a guest-worker program for up to 5000 Pacific Islanders from Vanuatu, Tonga, Samoa, Kiribati and Tuvalu, but Mr Bracks wants the scheme broadened to include Australia's near neighbour.
"Unemployment in Timor Leste is about 45%. For young people, young men in particular, it goes to well over 50%," he said. "They can't get into education, they can't get work, they're frustrated by the lack of progress in their nation, so I think there is enormous merit in having a significant program of training of young people in Australia for Timor Leste citizens, a guest-worker system."
Mr Bracks said workers should be brought to Australia for at least a year and employed under award conditions.
"And, importantly, the program would have a credential as part of it. Some of it would be on and off-the-job training. It might be a trade-based certificate or a contribution towards an apprenticeship, but something that they can complete as well as doing the job required," he said.
He has approached the Federal Government, speaking with parliamentary secretary for international development assistance Bob McMullan and immigration department officials to garner support. He said East Timor's Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, was a strong advocate of the scheme. The plan to go before cabinet, as early as this week, is based on a guest-worker program being trialled in New Zealand.
Immigration Department head Andrew Metcalfe last month led a delegation to NZ to examine the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme, under which Pacific Islanders are granted residency for between seven and nine months.
Immigration Minister Chris Evans declined to comment on the potential involvement of East Timor in a guest-worker program, saying only that the Pacific Islands proposal was slated for cabinet consideration.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is believed to be keen to announce his plans for the Pacific region at a meeting of leaders at the Pacific Islands Forum in Niue in August.
Guest-worker schemes were opposed by the Howard government, but Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Andrew Robb has said the Coalition now has an "open mind" on the programs.
Crucially, key unions, which initially voiced concerns that guest workers would erode working conditions for Australians, have also lent support.
Australian Workers Union head Paul Howes and ACTU president Sharan Burrow endorse a guest-worker program.
The union movement wants a "rights-based scheme" with safeguards against the exploitation seen under the 457 visa program.
In February, the West Australian Government signed a memorandum of understanding with East Timor to employ workers in the Pilbara and Kimberley regions, but the Commonwealth must approve the proposal before goes ahead.