Between 31 July and 3 August, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat meetings in Fiji set a tone for the forthcoming leaders’ meetings in the Cook Islands at the end of August. Much of the media focus surrounding the Pacific has centered on the US involvement in the dialogue as part of its rebalancing, and to a lesser extent, Australia and New Zealand’s changing relations with Fiji. As the Secretariat meetings have indicated, however, reforming the Pacific Plan to reflect the contemporary political, economic and security conditions in the Pacific will be critical for this year. Issues of labor mobility and trade integration within the Pacific Islands region will be critical to the continued development and success of the Pacific Plan and the Pacific as a whole.
A product of the 2004 Auckland Declaration, the Pacific Plan is a ‘living document’ that enables initiatives to adapt with the framework. The Pacific Plan has four pillars aimed at enhancing economic growth, sustainable development, good governance and security of the Pacific through regionalism. Securing actions at the national level has been a paramount concern given the diversity of states and disparity in wealth.
One goal in reviewing the current Pacific Plan should be to improve labor mobility in the region. This goal is steadily gaining traction, but policymakers need to take care to avoid some of the negative aspects of temporary migration and to provide more sustainability. The Australian Pacific Seasonal Work Pilot Scheme and New Zealand Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme have been workable models to increase remittances among the island states. In fact, there are recruiting firms throughout the Pacific that promote workers for both New Zealand and Australian schemes (see, for example, http://www.workreadyvanuatu.com).
However, the seasonal worker schemes create multiple dependencies on unskilled labor. Horticulture, viticulture and other industries that have seasonal labor needs are more inclined to take on labor with less ability to make demands for rights and benefits; furthermore, migrant labor provides a pool of labor potentially unavailable or unwilling to do the grunt work required in those industries. Migrants, on the other hand, become dependent on impermanent, unskilled and unpredictable work. While remittances are highly valued as essential Pacific economies, the type of work created for seasonal workers is currently not the most sustainable either in terms of returning home as a skilled migrant or with a secure income.
Such an exchange of labor could be expanded to all Forum Island Countries (FICs) in a way that encourages training and the exchange of skills. (See, for example, doctor exchanges between Venezuela and Cuba as a progressive idea; it hasn’t worked well in practice however due to strong ideological fervor among both states). For a more skilled and sustainable Pacific economy, training is needed outside of the temporary program, and protections are needed against exploitation. Migrants and temporary workers are typically the most disadvantaged in in terms of labor rights and the Pacific has the potential to produce a more equitable regional model.
Like the issue of labor mobility, creating a common market and pursuing free trade in the Pacific are goals that require careful attention. Both Australian and New Zealand foreign ministries have explicitly stated that their approach to the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus negotiations differs from their traditional approach to free trade agreements; rather than focusing solely on their states’ commercial interests, Australia and New Zealand aim to promote the development and capacity of FICs. The two regional powers additionally must maintain competitiveness with potential trade agreements that FICs make with the European Union.
With ever-increasing collusion among trade, development and foreign policies, taking steps toward free trade agreements is a precondition for aid and greater access to NZ and Australian markets. The goal of PACER Plus is to start with free trade within the FICs to demonstrate their abilities to cope with such policies. One problem encountered by the region is that the principles of free trade clash with certain traditional Pacific principles (e.g. property rights). Regionally, community development solutions such as bulk purchasing invite avenues for creativity and take into consideration the nature and interests of Pacific Island states.
Globalization and the changing international political landscape are creating an increasingly competitive environment in the Pacific. As the region draws greater attention from China and the US for its geostrategic position and natural resources, the Pacific Islands Forum and its member states should secure a more formidable voice, particularly on issues that impact the region. An effective review and renewal of the Pacific Plan then must include two of the most noteworthy subjects for development, improved labor mobility and closer economic relations.