Backpackers are everywhere in Sydney. They work in shops and cafes, drink to excess in pubs and clubs and fry themselves to a crisp on Bondi Beach. But Australia's South Pacific neighbours say it is unfair that the country allows in tens of thousands of Europeans and North Americans on working-holiday visas, while denying the same opportunity to their people. They want to see the introduction of a guest-worker scheme under which Solomon Islanders, Fijians and Papua New Guineans would be granted temporary work visas. That makes sense for both sides, they say, because Pacific island states have high unemployment while many sectors of the Australian economy are suffering from an acute labour shortage. Among the industries crying out for more workers are construction and agriculture - especially labour-intensive areas like fruit picking. If Pacific islanders were allowed to fill these jobs, they could send home some of their pay to help support struggling families: remittances from overseas have long been a crucial part of island economies. Charles Lepani, PNG's high commissioner to Australia, this month criticised what he called Canberra's 'dismissive attitude' towards the idea. 'We feel very strongly that, as close neighbours of Australia, we should be given a serious hearing,' he said. At a Pacific summit in October, PNG's foreign minister, Sir Rabbie Namaliu, accused Australia of applying double standards to the working-holiday scheme. 'There is one law for young Europeans and Americans, and a different one for young Pacific islanders,' he said. So far, however, the Australian government has shown no enthusiasm for the proposal. It argues that Pacific islanders often overstay their visas - New Zealand has had a particular problem with illegal immigrants. Prime Minister John Howard has said there is a big difference between backpackers being given one-off working-holiday visas, and islanders hoping to gain seasonal employment year after year. Instead of sending their most able workers overseas, Pacific nations should concentrate on good governance and reform to lift their economies, Australia counsels. Some Australians are uncomfortable with the idea of armies of Pacific labourers working on farms, because of the notorious 19th century practice of 'blackbirding'. Villagers from countries such as Vanuatu and the Solomons were brought to Queensland to work on sugar-cane plantations under almost slave labour conditions. Some were kidnapped, and others were tricked into boarding the boats to Australia. A lingering sense of guilt in Australia over treating young Melanesians so shabbily may explain partly why the idea of bringing in Pacific workers has met with such a lukewarm response.