So 145 years after it started, 105 years after Federation’s white Australia policy stopped it, we’re going back to “black birding” — The Return of the Kanaka.

Last time round when Queensland recruited Pacific Islanders as laborers for its sugar cane fields, policy implementation ranged from slavery to reasonable indentured labor contracts. That the mortality rate on one Mackay sugar plantation was more than 10% suggests occupational health and safety sometimes wasn’t much of an issue in 1897. And when the southerners had their way, more than 7000 islanders were forcefully and sometimes brutally deported.

In 2008 as we again recruit farm laborers from the South Seas, it is of course going to be different, with the blessing of international aid agencies, promoted as a win-win by the governments of Australia and the South Pacific nations, with unions promising to monitor pay and conditions and a farm lobby overjoyed that its persistent campaigning for access to compliant unskilled guest workers has finally succeeded.

But there remain aspects of this which have been brushed aside by Canberra’s enthusiasm to make a splash at the Pacific Islands Forum. For example:

  • There’s something slightly obnoxious about a rich, predominantly white nation deciding poor, brown islanders are good enough to import to do hard labor our own unskilled unemployed are too lazy or spoilt to touch — but they’re not good enough to be allowed to live here for more than a few months at a time.
  • Why are we paying unemployment benefits to several hundred thousand able-bodied Australians when we have to import unskilled labor? And a disproportionate number of those unemployed are in rural areas?
  • It is part of a creeping expansion of guest worker schemes. What was originally intended as a temporary solution to our chronic skills shortages now is open to unskilled labor in industries with the right lobbying power — nursing homes and farms. There’s a freeze on 457 visas for McDonalds workers, the full-time “au pair” house keepers on $200 a week are limited to one-year stints and the Transport Workers Union beat off a push for guest worker truck drivers, but give it time.
  • From being a (relatively) classless society, we are moving to three clear divisions — permanent residents, temporary residents, seasonal workers — with an individual’s security clearly decreasing with rank.

On the other hand, yes, the fruit pickers’ pay packets will go a long way back in the villages. Farms that otherwise might not be viable here will survive. It is a way to spread our wealth. The local rugby union competitions will certainly improve.

But yet, we’re becoming different only in degree from the oil sheikdoms raiding the third world for maids and laborers but offering no chance of citizenship, of equality. You can make our beds, clean up our sh-t, but you’re not good enough to be allowed to bring your family here and prosper as our equals.

I spent three years in Hong Kong and continue to irregularly visit the place. I still find something ineffably sad about the Sunday throng of Filipina maids in Central, the guest workers in each other’s company one day a week sharing photographs and news of their families back home. Their modest wages support their brothers/sisters/parents, as do those of laborers on Dubai building sites.

And after evening mass the maids wander off for another six days working for the rich Chinese and expats.