The recent announcement by the Australian Government to remove the cap on the number of Pacific Island workers taking part in the Seasonal Worker Program (SWP) has re-energised the PACER Plus negotiations for a comprehensive free trade agreement between Australia, New Zealand and fourteen Forum Island Countries paving the way for a conclusion by September 2016.
In recognition of the potential significant economic and development benefits that could accrue to the FICs from an expanded Seasonal Worker Program (SWP), the Chief Trade Adviser of the FICs in the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus negotiations, Dr Edwini Kessie, led a delegation from the Office of the Chief Trade Adviser (OCTA) to Australia to discuss with officials from the Departments of Employment and Foreign Affairs and Trade the implementation of the recent changes to the SWP, which include the extension of the program to the whole agricultural sector throughout the country and the accommodation sector in selected locations, as well as the commencement of a trialling of the program in the tourism sector in Northern Australia.
The delegation was assured of the Australian Government’s commitment to implementing the revamped program as soon as practicable and to assist the FICs to take full advantage of it. The delegation also participated in a Roundtable on the SWP convened by the Australian National University. The discussions essentially focussed on the scope of the recent changes and the measures that should be implemented to ensure that the FICs derive maximum benefits from the SWP.
The delegation also met with Trade Union representatives to discuss the recent changes to the SWP and the PACER Plus negotiations in general. The Unions expressed their appreciation of the SWP as an important developmental tool for the FICs, but also stressed that their support for the recent changes to the SWP was dependent on the effective implementation of credible measures by the Australian Government to ensure that Pacific workers participating in the program were not exploited by employers. They underscored the need for PACER Plus to be a development-oriented agreement and urged the Governments participating in the negotiations to consult widely with stakeholders and take their views into account.
Dr Kessie expressed satisfaction with the meetings with various stakeholders during the delegations time in Australia and said that PACER Plus has the potential to assist the FICs to enhance their participation in international trade and achieve robust economic growth which should assist them to attain higher living standards and meet the post-2015 development agenda.
“PACER Plus offers a unique opportunity for the FICs to deepen their trade and economic links with Australia and New Zealand, which should help them to attract foreign direct investment and enhance their participation in international trade,” Dr Kessie said.
“Not only would the FICs benefit from increased labour mobility in the region, as evidenced by the recent changes to the SWP by Australia, it would assist them to reduce trade costs and enhance the efficiency of businesses operating in the Pacific.”
The PACER Plus regional trade negotiations are expected to be concluded next year and enter into force in early 2017.