By Anne Barker
East Timor's Prime Minister Xanana Gusmaowill visit Australia next week. (Reuters: Gary Ramage/Pool)
An East Timorese guest worker scheme is likely to be on the agenda during a visit to Canberra next week by East Timor's Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, who will hold talks with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
An East Timor government official has spent months in talks with business and government authorities in Western Australia's remote north and an agreement has been signed with the WA Government on bringing East Timorese to work in Australia's remote Kimberley region.
East Timor is now proposing that about 300 workers and trainees come to Australia under the first year of a pilot scheme .
East Timor is one of the world's poorest nations, with unemployment at above 60 per cent, and its Government has described an urgent need to develop its skills base.
The idea comes after Australia's decision to pilot a scheme for Pacific Island workers to fill what farmers say is a labour shortage in Australian horticulture.
Kevin Austin is the East Timor official who has been working on aspects of a possible scheme in WA.
"There are several industries we have looked at but these are all industries that are having labour shortage crisis issues and these are all industries Timor can gain skills from," Mr Austin has told ABC radio's AM.
He says some of the industries in northern WA that are facing crippling labour shortages are tourism, forestry and aquaculture, and he says it makes sense to bring Timorese workers to the Kimberley.
"What we've proposed is 300 employees and trainees in the first pilot year and we're also requesting 100 occupational trainees," Mr Austin said.
"Timor would benefit from the fact that we have such a large youth unemployed and unskilled so-called bubble; these people certainly would assist in Timor's national and human security recovery and development."
One company that has struggled to find and keep staff is the Cable Beach Resort at Broome, which says it can have 30 jobs vacant at any time of year, with no one to fill them.
The resort tends to rely on backpackers, but with their tendency to move on quickly, they do not answer the need for a more stable workforce.
Cable Beach Resort general manager Ron Sedon says Timorese workers could easily fill some of those jobs, particularly as gardeners, landscapers, housekeepers and food and beverage workers.
"I also think that given Australia's close relationship with East Timor at the moment, we have a moral responsibility to develop a workforce," Mr Sedon said.
Local business support is so strong that Western Australia has signed an agreement with East Timor to bring workers to the Kimberley.
If the Commonwealth agrees, the workers would work anywhere from Broome to Kununurra, with employers paying their transport, accommodation and meals.
Mr Austin also says the training role is important.
"Initially we looked at semi- to low-skilled positions," he said.
"We are now looking at other skilled areas that would assist Timor in gaining skills, so we're not just talking about employment, we're also looking at a dual program of both employment and skilling to help Timor with its own strategic industries that will help its recovery and development."
The Federal Government will not say if its Pacific worker pilot program will be expanded to include workers from East Timor.
But Mr Austin is hopeful that the ground work that has already been done will pay off and bring an announcement in Canberra next week to coincide with Mr Gusmao's visit.