Its a Win-Win Scenario

Islands Business:

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

One of the most oft quoted traditional Maori proverbs goes, “He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!” This simple, universally relevant and permanently valid home truth translates as, “What is the most important thing in the world? It is people! It is people! It is people!”

There is nothing in the world as powerful as the collective power of the people. Civilisations have been built, empires expanded, new frontiers conquered and new knowledge has been acquired because of people power. Leaders ancient and modern have known this fact and those who have used it wisely and appropriately have created history – not just in the military and in politics but also in every human endeavour.

How gainfully its people are employed has a great bearing on the wellbeing of any society. Rates of gainful employment are critical for the economies of any country, which is why high rates of unemployment are such a worry to governments anywhere in the world. The Global Financial Crisis has sent unemployment rates soaring to as much as 30 to 40 per cent in some European countries like Spain and Portugal – an unprecedented level in peacetime.

In the fast growing economies of Asia, unemployment has been comparatively lower. But with world trade becoming increasingly interconnected and the economies of countries becoming intertwined with one another because of the forces of globalisation, what happens in one part of the world can quite easily and quickly begin to affect other parts of the world. So no country can ever rest easy on what seem like lower employment levels. They must continually strive hard to increase investment to create avenues of work and keep people employed.

This is especially true of countries that have young populations like those in the Pacific Islands region. More than half of the population of the collective Pacific Islands comprises young people below the age of 24, which is in stark contrast with much of the western world, where most of the population is ageing with fewer young people.
While this is an asset for Pacific Island nations, it can be only so if these people are gainfully employed.

If European unemployment figures have shocked the world, the reality in some Pacific Island countries is far worse. Some countries in the region have as much as 58 per cent of its work-capable population unemployed. It is probably masked only because many of these countries rely on a strong subsistence economy, unlike European nations.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that a new World Bank report titled “Wellbeing from Work in the Pacific Island Countries” says that the creation of avenues for increased employment is critical for the economic sustainability of the Pacific Islands region. As populations grow, numbers of young people grow, with these young people then tending to gravitate toward urban areas. Stronger urban concentrations then tend to create social unrest, especially with increasing poverty because of low employment rates.

This underscores the importance to create opportunities for harnessing this readily available human capacity, especially for women and youth, to contribute to the economy and avoid falling into poverty, the report says. The report identifies some practical avenues for achieving this. Some of these have already proved successful and need to be scaled up, in the interests of the sustainability of Pacific Island economies.

For instance, the report has highlighted the role of seasonal labour – like the successful Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) Scheme in New Zealand – in providing productive work and critical income for thousands of Pacific Islanders. The Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat’s trade and investment promotion arm, Pacific Islands Trade & Invest (PT&I) NZ has been involved in New Zealand’s RSE scheme since inception in 2007. Thanks to this scheme thousands of Pacific Islanders find seasonal employment in the farms of New Zealand every year.

Commenting on the seasonal labour programme in the region Tobias Haque, Economist for the Pacific Islands at the World Bank and lead author of the report said, “migrant workers can access higher incomes in Australia or New Zealand than would ever be possible at home, while remittance flows are providing critical income for many Pacific Island economies. At the same time businesses in Australia and New Zealand have also benefited from access to a productive, highly reliable workforce.”

He termed the scheme a “win-win” situation saying, “the ability of Pacific Islanders to work overseas provides a ‘win-win’ scenario for both sending and receiving countries.”

The report offers four key policy recommendations to increase employment opportunities and the wellbeing people can expect from work: Looking beyond business-environment reforms; Increasing opportunities for international labour mobility; Embracing urbanisation while managing the risks and leveraging public spending to create high quality employment opportunities.

Unlike in the past, employing humans for repetitive tasks is increasingly seen as a liability than a worthy investment at least in the western world. The emphasis is on replacing humans with automation in the name of greater efficiency and cost savings.

But not all repetitive tasks are replaceable by machines. At least not yet – and therein lies the opportunity for Pacific Island nations that are blessed with an able bodied, young population, ready to work with some training. Pacific leaders have to lobby hard for schemes like the seasonal employment arrangement in New Zealand and Australia to be expanded. This is an employment niche that is likely to remain intact for at least some time.

The leadership in the Pacific must work together among themselves and internationally to assuage the fears of host nations about any misgivings as regards employing migrant workers. Regional trade agreements like PACER Plus should take on board the importance of seasonal labour. This must be followed through at all levels of government.

The greatest challenges to seasonal labour schemes come from attitudes in recipient countries. Opposition for such schemes can come from several quarters including businesses and communities. There must be checks and balances employed to dispel fears of illegal immigration and other perceived socio-economic challenges that might or might not be justifiable. It is of primary importance that a conducive environment and frame of mind is created within the host countries if seasonal migration is to be scaled up.

The great success of such a scheme in New Zealand is beacon of hope to countries across the region that seasonal migration can quite realistically turn out to be a long term solution for gainful employment for the Pacific Islands for several decades to come.
Read story: Islands Business

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