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PNG’s work permit system: poorly monitored; no skills transfer

Expatriate workersCARMEN VOIGT-GRAF | PNG National Research Institute | Extract

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ON PAPER, PNG’s Work Permit System is relatively balanced. The system allows businesses to bring in skills from abroad. At the same time, it benefits Papua New Guinean workers by reserving unskilled and low-skilled occupations for them and by having an in-built skills transfer component.

One concern about the written guidelines is that the classification of occupations needs to be reviewed and revised. Some occupations, which are currently classified as “amber”, could easily be re-classified as “red” because the skills required for these occupations are available in PNG.

Overall, however, the major weaknesses within the current system lie in the lack of compliance monitoring and enforcement, the granting of exemptions to general work permit requirements, and that the existence of the system may reduce training efforts of businesses.

From the point of view of businesses, the work permit system is functioning reasonably well. Employers can bring non-citizen workers with skills that are not available locally in PNG.

The system is relatively quick and less bureaucratic than, for example, Australia’s temporary skilled migration program under the 457 Visa. In Australia, a labour market test is generally required.

Most businesses in PNG which employ non-citizens engage the services of a recruitment agency or a labour hire company to assist with the application and selection process, and to handle work permit and visa applications.

Often, these agencies take up the role of employer of work permit holders and sub-hire them to companies. Some recruitment companies are PNG-based and maintain databases of available workers both in PNG and overseas.

They might also collaborate with overseas-based agents, and such is the case in the Philippines and Australia.

Other recruitment agencies are global companies themselves with branches in many countries and with a global database of available workers.

One concern of some employers is the time it takes from advertising a vacancy to having a non-citizen worker on the ground. This usually takes at least three months. This is long, for instance, for construction companies that have won a major tender and have committed to starting work on a particular project.

On the other hand, this concern seems to be relatively minor, compared to the generally smooth functioning of the system from the point of view of businesses.

Consultations with the Department of Labour and Industrial Relations (DLIR) reveal that the department itself is well aware that its labour inspectors are struggling to check compliance of companies with work permit regulations, such as the skills transfer requirement and validity of exemptions.

Considering these checks are already difficult in urban areas, these are almost non-existent in more remote parts of the country where most of the mining, agri-business and logging operations—which employ a large number of non-citizen workers—are located.

There have been instances of DLIR compliance officers visiting logging sites but the remoteness of these sites means that the officers’ coming is known ahead of time, giving opportunities for workers breaching their work permit obligations or those without work permits at all to hide from DLIR officials.

A DLIR office in one of PNG’s provinces who was consulted did not have any funds for petrol and as such, no labour inspectors could visit any work places outside of the provincial capital. In another province, compliance officers simply did not exist.

Due to the lack of an effective system to check on compliance, workers who are working illegally in PNG are often not caught. As discussed above, part of the regulation of non-citizen employment in PNG involves businesses submitting training plans to prove that on-the-job training has been taking place.

While this is a reasonable policy framework, DLIR lacks the financial and human resources to monitor the policy, leading to a situation where in many workplaces little training and mentoring take place. DLIR regularly renews work permits after three years without any skills transfer having occurred.

Moreover, there are many examples of some non-citizen workers working in jobs that are different – often lower-skilled – compared to those specified in their work permit, with some even working in jobs that are categorised as “red”.

Concerns about the lack of skills transfer and other breaches of the work permit policy have prompted DLIR to consider the introduction of a provisional 12-month work permit in order to better monitor compliance with the policy.

If this proposal is adopted, it is likely to only add in a new layer of bureaucracy for it does not address ensuring greater compliance with the system— It might even further undermine business confidence in PNG.


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Rex Wellin

What are the achievable strategies that require implementation by the government to arrest this intentional breach of trust by companies keeping foreign employees beyond three years without skills transfer and amber/red classified jobs?

Ensuring compliance with government policy and regulation would probably fix things. But no such pressure is exerted - KJ

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