Saturday, May 10, 2008

Back to the future: labour mobility as a national strategy for SI?

Is SI set to re-enter the international labour mobility scene in big way, almost a century after it left?

The Sikua government has made its intentions clear since launching its policy document:
“My government will continue to explore the concept or issue of labour mobility. “The economic benefits of seasonal workers schemes on our economy through remittances and new skills from returning workers are quite significant,” he said. Dr Sikua said his task will be to negotiate with some of his allies to push this policy forward. “We will pursue seasonal workers scheme with a number of countries including New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, Canada and Scandinavian countries,” he said.
With Solomon Islanders already participating in NZ's RSE scheme, and with recent training programmes aimed at preparing health caregivers for work in Canada, attention is now turning towards the biggest potential labour market in the region: Australia.

PM Sikua has made headlines with news of a "deadline" for Australia's answer to the question over seasonal labour from SI. According to the Melbourne Age:
The Solomon Islands is expecting Canberra to have an answer by August on whether it will allow Pacific workers into Australia.
The Australian government has in the recent past been quite opposed to the possibility, but Rudd's administration may be softening to it, especially if the results from NZ's RSE scheme are positive.

From a historical perspective, this is in some senses nothing new - in the late 19th and early 20th century thousands of Solomon Islanders were put to work clearing land and building the foundations of the Australian sugar industry.

This, the so-called blackbirding trade or period had a profound impact on Solomon Islands history, as part of a larger pattern of labour appopriation and through the habits and attitudes introduced to the country by returnees. A major church in modern SI, the SSEC, was originally formed as a branch of the Queensland Kanaka Mission, a missionary organisation targetting the blackbirded labourers.

This makes even more fascinating one rationale put forward by PM Sikua for a new agricultural labour scheme to Australia:

Dr Sikua believes it could also help unite a nation divided by ethnic tensions.

He used the concept of wantok - people who come from the same village or speak the same language.

"You know when they come to Australia they will all call themselves wantoks. They will all call themselves Solomon Islanders," Dr Sikua said.

"I think that will bring in a kind of advantage to helping us break down some of the barriers we have as well as other tensions that exist between our people."

Some of the building blocks (good and bad) of the modern SI were cast through the labout trade more than 100 years ago. Will the future path of Solomons Islands, as in the past, be shaped in the agricultural fields of Australia?