Typically, the migration and development agenda is stifled by governments and public opinion in OECD countries. Wary of the impact on economies, labour markets, society and culture, the rich developed world has rather entrenched values about mass immigration from poor countries. However, there are more limited examples of where developing country governments have not put in place the right set of decisions to exploit emigration opportunities.
Starting in 2008, Timor-Leste and South Korea have maintained a bilateral relationship for Timorese citizens to work in South Korea. This paper from March 2014 outlines progress and roadblocks encountered since.
The most disappointing part is this:
In the first phase, the Government of Timor-Leste through SEPFOPE sent 50 workers to South Korea. In 2011 the South Korean Government was asking for 2,500 workers, but Timor Leste was only offering 400 workers; in 2012, South Korea raised the number of employees reached to 2750 people, Timor Leste once again releasing only 500 workers. In 2013 the South Korean government demanded workers jumped up to 3,500 people, but the number which derived from the Government of Timor-Leste only reach to 280 workers.
7570 positions left unfilled in just three years. If each additional emigrant sent home $5,000 per year for their work, this is equivalent to $37,500,000 in lost remittance income. For a country of just over a million people with a GDP per capita of just US$1,068, this is a lot of money, equivalent to over 3 per cent of GDP.
Of course, there are some explanations.
To participate in the program, you must pass a Korean language test. At first, I thought this must have been Korean government policy. Except:
“SEPFOPE (a Timor-Leste government agency) has its own criterias that should be met by prospective workers to South Korea such as attending Korean language course in a few months: in fact, many workers did not pass the final exam” (Alves.P 2014).
The language test appears to be Timor government policy, not Korean. Given the potential lost income, this seems a high barrier to entry in terms of emigration. Of course many workers do not pass the final exam, presumably because its extremely difficulty to learn Korean in Timor-Leste. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t pass the test, even with an enormous amount of time invested in learning Korean.
Further, the fact the program numbers have been going backwards is a poor sign for future outcomes.
The Timor government and SEPFOPE need to do more to ensure these opportunities are not wasted in the coming years. It is pleasing to see the problems identified in this report (the lack attendance to classes, the difficultly of Korean instruction in local dialects and the lack of priority the program receives from the government). Hopefully this has set in train a process where the number of Timor emigrants can increase. Perhaps the standard of Korean could be revised downwards for some participants and monitored for any adverse consequences.
The total remittance flow to Timor was just under $3m for 2013. For a country of over a million people, this is not a large amount relative to many of developing countries. Remittances will not solve development in Timor, yet they will assist the overall trend towards better economic growth and living standards.
One of the major issues is the lack of emigration to Australia. While over a thousand workers were in South Korea in 2012 (the work visas appear to be longer a year, with overlap of annual placements), a paltry 29 made it to Australia last year under the Seasonal Work Program. This is frankly embarrassing for both governments. Timor-Leste is one of the poorest countries in the world and Australia one of the richest. The lack of built in support and facilitation of the Seasonal Work Program is something which should be rectified as soon as possible, otherwise it will simply remain an under-subscribed immigration program, useless to regional employers and potential emigrants, angering Pacific governments and an excuse for the Australian government to point to something and say, ‘see, look!’.
English language should be easier than Korean given the residual level of English knowledge in the country . Further, the existing links between Australia and Timor, while seriously frayed at the current time, should make for a more smooth facilitation of emigrants over time. What is really required are a handful of major employers to participate in the program. The Accommodation trial in the seasonal worker program, with eligibility for the entire state of Western Australia and Northern Territory, would be a good place to start.
Timor-Leste should push harder on this. Lobby the Australian government. Contact large hospitality employers in Perth. Harass DFAT about the red-tape inherent in the program. The cold politics of the current relationship should see Australia looking for avenues in which to be more amenable. While this is small fry compared to oil and gas revenue, it is an example of where a small amount of support could transform the flow of people from a rounding error to something more substantial.