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The prime minister of Tuvalu is considering pulling his country out of Australia’s seasonal worker programme, after comments by Australia’s deputy prime minister that Pacific islanders threatened by climate change would survive because “many of their workers come here and pick our fruit”.
“I thought the Australian labour scheme was determined on mutual respect, that Australia was also benefiting,” Enele Sopoaga told RNZ.
“We are not crawling below that. If that’s the view of the government, then I would have no hesitation in pulling back the Tuvaluan people as from tomorrow.”
Sopoaga’s comments came after the Guardian revealed that Michael McCormack, who was acting prime minister while Scott Morrison attended the forum in Tuvalu, said on Friday: “I also get a little bit annoyed when we have people in those sorts of countries pointing the finger at Australia and say we should be shutting down all our resources sector so that, you know, they will continue to survive.
“They’ll continue to survive because many of their workers come here and pick our fruit.”
The seasonal worker programme employs people from a handful of Pacific countries, as well as Timor-Leste, in the agriculture and tourism sectors on visas of up to nine months at a time. There have been more than 25,000 placements of seasonal workers since the program started in July 2012, with nearly 8,500 visas issued in 2017-18.
While Tuvalu, which has a population of around 11,000, represents a very small share of the seasonal worker program, with only around 30 visas issued to Tuvaluans since the scheme began, Sopoaga told RNZ he would summon Australia’s high commissioner to Tuvalu to explain McCormack’s comments, and if he was not satisfied with her explanation of what McCormack said, he would cancel the programme and encourage other Pacific countries to do the same.
Sopoaga added his voice to that of Fijian prime minister Frank Bainimarama, who told the Guardian on Friday night that he found McCormack’s comments “very insulting”.
“That was insulting when he said the people of the Pacific will never die because they come and pick fruit in Australia, that’s very insulting,” he said. “It’s very insulting, but I get the impression that that’s the sentiment brought across by the prime minister. I could feel it yesterday.”
Vanuatu’s foreign affairs minister, Ralph Regenvanu, said he had “definitely no comment” on McCormack’s statement. Vanuatu represents the second-largest bloc of people taking up visas through the seasonal worker programme, with 2,150 visas issued to people from the country in 2016-2017.
SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN/PACNEWS
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