Guest Worker Scheme, Higher Education and other topics!
By John Roughan
31 October 2005
Last week's Pacific Islands Forum meeting in PNG focused on many different areas of life dear to national leaders and
their people across the Pacific. Certainly one hot topic was the idea of allowing unskilled island workers into the
region's two biggest economies, Australia and New Zealand. However, Australia's PM, John Howard, argued against the idea
while New Zealand's PM, Helen Clark, was much more open to it.
Both these countries, of course, already open their doors to Pacific Island professionals--medical doctors, academics
and others--although in small numbers, to take up residence and hold down jobs. A guest worker scheme, however, is more
about secondary school leavers or those with minimum education levels. Such workers would be allowed to travel to
Australia and New Zealand for a three to four month period during the fruit harvest period, for instance.
In such a scheme, both countries--the host as well as the sending country--find it profitable. The host country gains a
reliable work-force able and willing to take on work that the locals will not do. The guest worker, on the other hand,
finds well paying work. Both sides benefit.
Guest worker schemes are actually strengthening around the world. There's no end in sight! European countries, for
instance, have operated such schemes for years now and there is no shortage of workers willing to travel to take up the
work local people turn up their noses at. It is estimated that Guest Worker schemes generate more than $200 billion in
remittances (funds sent back to workers' families) each year. That's three times the worth of official development aid
that comes from rich and powerful nations. But Guest Worker money comes with no strings attached, it is wholly owned by
the worker and family and most importantly, it generates little dependency.
Perhaps a stint in each other's country, not as a tourist or a passing-through visitor, but rubbing shoulders in the
work place would have more to do with rooting out corruption, strengthening civil society's good governance work and
creating a strong investment climate than simply pumping in tons of money and a one way traffic of personnel as we
currently experience in the Solomons.
In spite of John Howard's reluctance to back a Guest Worker scheme, Solomon Islanders must not simply give up on the
idea. In 1999, our own PM, Bart Ulufa'alu, while our nation was weakening, asked Australia for a contingent of soldiers
to help us fight the Social Unrest of the time. Unfortunately, Australia refused his request. Our next PM, Manasseh
Sogovare, asked help from the UN and received only silence. Just six months before the RAMSI force did land on our
shores, Australia's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, dismissed the idea that Australia would ever think of
sending troops to our country. Yet, within a few months more than 2,000 of them landed on our shores.
If Australia accepts Europeans for seasonal work, then it seems only sensible that a labor force practically in its own
back yard would be acceptable some time soon. It took three of our PMs (Ulufa'alu, Sogavare and finally Sir Allan) over
a six year period to convince Australian leadership to come in and help us. Hopefully the Guest Worker idea will take
root faster than that!
The topic of higher education was another area of Solomons concern. Although this topic wasn't surfaced at the Forum,
New Zealand's PM spoke to the Solomon Islands Cabinet on the topic. Prime Minister Helen Clark voiced out her concern
loud and clear. She told our Cabinet that she was worried that it was spending too much on university schooling and too
little on basic, primary and secondary education. This trend must not continue, she said.
NZ's PM knows what she's speaking about. Currently, New Zealand pumps in more than $40 million for basic and primary
education for our country's youngest. She's putting her money where her mouth is! Primary and basic education are
literally the backbone of the nation. Of course we need higher education for as many of our up and coming students as
possible but not at the expense of tens of thousands of our kids in primary classes.
Pacific-wide meetings act as worthwhile mirrors for leaders. Topics discussed among heads of state in such places have a
way of waking everyone up. It's important that leadership take notice of what is publicly said, listen to the arguments
offered by different leaders but in the last analysis the nation state has to come down to what is best for the
majority, usually the poorest. A Guest Worker scheme offers many of our young people a chance to study the world first
hand, gain important skills and at the same time, help out the family. Quality basic, primary and secondary schooling is
best for the majority of our people and must not be sacrificed for the benefit of the few at the higher end of