Pacific Island nations are moving to gain control over their labour drains, after seasonal worker numbers explode

Pacific Island nations are moving to gain control over their labour drains, after seasonal worker numbers explode
  • PublishedApril 28, 2024

For Maurice Masuino, recruiting a new electrician will take an international search.

His Vanuatu business, South Pacific Electrics, lost 10 per cent of its staff to seasonal work in Australia and New Zealand, and electricians are in short supply at home.

Those remaining at the business are feeling the pressure as large projects approach.

“We’ve managed to shuffle things around, but it’s made it really, really difficult for us,” Mr Masuino said.

A woman wearing a hard hat and fluoro jacket sticks a pole in the ground.
South Pacific Electrics employee Gasilda Tiopang at work in Vanuatu.(Supplied: Maurice Masuino)

It’s one of many trades and occupations listed as facing shortages — including in the country’s vital tourism sector — as thousands of ni-Vanuatu leave for popular labour mobility schemes.

For workers, the schemes are a chance to earn higher wages, save money and build homes despite cost of living pressures at home.

But business leaders are calling for urgent fixes to the labour shortages.

Vanuatu Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) president Antoine Boudier said some businesses advertising positions locally are encountering silence.

“There is utterly no-one replying to it. And the people replying to those positions may not have the qualifications,” he said.

Vanuatu is looking abroad for a short-term solution, importing its own foreign workers and creating an emergency visa aiming to bring in 1,500 people.

But early results are mixed as businesses look to recruit more staff from overseas.

Elsewhere in the Pacific, Samoa and Tonga plan to prevent labour shortages by gaining more control over which workers join labour mobility schemes.

Experts say the changes could help Pacific Island nations, but that officials could struggle to pursue them as they’re inundated with other priorities.

A solution with a dilemma

In Vanuatu, workers have arrived from the Philippines and Fiji, while some businesses are looking to hire from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Mauritius, Mr Boudier said.

But only 200 people have applied for the emergency visa after a year, even though the visa has less red tape.

One problem is the visa only lasts 12 months, and cannot be renewed or extended — making it less appealing for foreign workers considering a move to Vanuatu, he said.

“It has created a little dilemma at that level.”

The VCCI said the emergency visa program, which it helped facilitate, is now on hold as the business community waits to speak to the government about a review.

Vanuatu’s Minister for Internal Affairs Johnny Koanapo was approached for comment.

A palm tree and other green foliage with buildings, a bay and headland in the background.
Businesses in Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila are struggling to find workers. (ABC News: Doug Dingwall)

Griffith University expert in labour mobility Kirstie Petrou said while Vanuatu’s new emergency visa was meant to bring in workers more quickly, employers reported using other options.

“Employers are still preferring to go with that more traditional work visa because they get a longer period for which they can use the particular employee that they’ve brought into the country,” she said.

Mr Masuino hired an electrician from Australia using the emergency visa, and said it offered him a solution even with its flaws and delays.

Bringing in a worker using the visa involved arranging police clearances, paperwork and a long wait for immigration approval.

“It’s not a simple two minute process, it’s quite a lot of work,” he said.

Taking back control

Pacific Island nations have been reviewing their labour mobility policies since an explosion in the number of workers joining the schemes in Australia and New Zealand since COVID.

The amount of visas issued to workers participating in Australia’s Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme and New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme nearly doubled to 48,000 between 2019 and 2023.

The percentage of working age people in the schemes hit double digits for Vanuatu (11.5 per cent) and Tonga (11.4 per cent) and reached 6.4 per cent for Samoa in 2023.

Pacific seasonal workers in Australia (ABC Wide Bay Audrey Courty)
Seasonal worker schemes remain popular in Pacific Island nations.

More recent numbers suggest that demand for Pacific Islander farm workers is falling in Australia.

In another post-pandemic change, Pacific Island governments have become more willing to voice their concerns about labour mobility schemes, Dr Petrou said.

“Governments were often quite reluctant to speak out if they thought things weren’t working for them,” she said.

“As numbers have increased, they’re much more willing to speak out and say, ‘Hang on, we need to look at this issue. We’re experiencing this problem. Let’s talk about it and see what kind of solution we can come up with’.”

One of their concerns is that the schemes now employ more skilled people who already have jobs — even though they were originally meant for unemployed or unskilled people.

And in Tonga and Samoa, labour mobility schemes add to pre-existing migration to New Zealand and Australia, Dr Petrou said.

“When you’ve got that occurring alongside those other migration streams, it is feeling like a lot of people are leaving, and either not necessarily wanting to come back or not seeing employment in Samoa or Tonga itself as being a long-term plan,” she said.

Both countries plan to change the type of workers joining labour mobility schemes.

In Samoa, the government has announced it wants local committees to help select who takes up seasonal work

Australian National University labour mobility expert Stephen Howes said it was a move aiming to bring more rural workers and unemployed people back into the schemes. 

“Trying to emphasise recruitment from rural areas makes a lot of sense for these labour mobility programs,” he said.

Samoa also announced an annual cap on labour mobility workers — although the number is about double the current amount of people joining the schemes. 

In Tonga, the government also plans to restrict seasonal work positions to people needing an income, or whose departure won’t create labour shortages for businesses and government departments.

A New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said it is giving more support for teams in Pacific countries determining who’s eligible for the scheme.

“New Zealand’s RSE scheme … is a significant source of income for many Pacific economies, as well as an opportunity for those workers [who are] part of the scheme to learn transferable skills that can be taken back to their home countries,” they said.

“Ultimately it is up to Pacific countries to decide whether or not they want to be part of the scheme.”

Australia’s Pacific Minister Pat Conroy said the government was supporting skills development in countries participating in the scheme, to help them fill labour market gaps.

“We know that the governments and people of the Pacific and Timor-Leste highly value labour mobility and the PALM scheme. But the scheme only works when it truly meets the needs of all parties involved,” he said.

“It’s … why we respect that different countries in the region will participate in different ways.”

farm workers picking tomatoes with a tractor
Some Pacific Island nations are aiming to better control which workers join labour mobility schemes. (ABC News: Johanna Marie)

Dr Petrou said it is still too early to know how successful Tonga and Samoa will be in solving labour shortages with their planned changes.

Some government departments are already stretched thin, she said.

“They’re trying to process literally thousands of visas for people, they don’t always have time to implement those longer term kinds of strategies or higher level goals,” Dr Petrou said.

“But we may start seeing some differences in how labour mobility is governed from the Pacific side as they’re implemented.”


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