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Feature post by Michelle Carnegie, Knowledge and Learning Manager of the Quality, Learning and Performance Unit, Pacific Labour Facility

The Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme is a temporary labour migration program that matches Pacific island and Timorese workers with Australian employers for unskilled seasonal jobs for up to nine months, and longer-term low-skilled and semi-skilled roles for between one and three years.

The PALM scheme is administered by the Pacific Labour Facility (PLF) in partnership with the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The PLF also works closely with the ‘labour sending units’ (or LSUs) in the government ministries of the 10 participating countries in delivering the scheme.

The economic benefits of the PALM scheme are substantial – the latest estimates show that between July 2018 and December 2021, approximately 5,300 long-term workers earned up to AUD172.8m and from that, saved and remitted an estimated $64.2m. Underlining these figures is the fact PALM scheme workers can earn and save much more than they could if they did not travel to Australia for temporary employment. The social costs associated with temporary labour migration are, however, less well known or acknowledged compared with the economic benefits.

Under current visa arrangements, family members cannot accompany PALM scheme workers to Australia. Family life inevitably changes when a household member migrates for temporary work, while partners, children, siblings, and parents stay behind and adjust to the worker’s absence. Additionally, PALM scheme workers must adjust to a new life in Australia, working in jobs that are physically demanding, with early starts and shift work, living in shared accommodation in remote and regional Australia, without the familiar scaffolding of their family and community support systems.

Below are some preliminary insights from a longitudinal study of 12 Fijian PALM scheme workers in Australia at the 12 to 18-month point of their 36-month contracts, and a nominated ‘stay-behind’ family member, and how they all navigate the changes in their everyday lives. The study findings juxtapose the workers’ physical absence and their personal and emotional sacrifices against the significant financial benefits of earning a foreign income.

Communicating across distance

Most families communicate daily, using WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, scheduling times to connect around each other’s time zones and routines. Conversations generally focus on the minutiae of everyday life, the highs and lows of the work or school day, finances, savings plans and household purchases, and the wellbeing and welfare of family, especially children and vulnerable members of the household. Social media platforms shrink the distance and help dispel the loneliness across the Pacific Ocean and make communication easy and affordable.

According to the workers, however, nothing can compensate for being physically present with family. As one 32-year-old female worker, Shelini, put it:

“And about talking to family. I know what they’re cooking at home. Then they know what I’m having for dinner. Yeah. So, it’s basically like I’m there. It’s only when someone is sick. And physically, I’m not there. That’s when it’s hard.”

Family responses to physical separation and livelihood improvements

Situations and responses to being separated differ depending on family structures and stages in the lifecycle, as well as support networks. Single mothers with a late teenager or young adult child and extended family available to look out for them had fewer concerns about family separation than, for example, a married couple with one or more young children and a stay-behind spouse.

One married couple’s relationship came under strain when the husband had an affair while working in Australia. This was extremely distressing for his wife who took six months to forgive him, drawing heavily on her Christian faith to do so. A female worker in Australia lost her husband to suicide, a truly shocking and unexpected incident that she believed was due to the long delays in being able to physically meet, and the indeterminacy caused by the pandemic about when international borders would open again. These types of events brought up questions in the minds of workers and family members as to whether working in Australia was the right thing to do.

In all cases, when workers and family members were asked about the improvements in their lives, it was the ability to materially provide for their families, to alleviate their financial struggles, to put savings away for the first time in their lives, and to plan for a future they could only have otherwise dreamed of.
Becoming a PALM scheme worker is coveted employment – in every country there are thousands of eligible workers in the ‘work-ready pool’ for relatively few work placements that provide the opportunity to accumulate hard-earned wealth.

Jone, the 49-year-old father of a single female worker, Susi, with four male siblings of school age summed up the social costs and economic benefits for his household:

“The young ones, they miss Susi very much. We’re very close and when they make video calls, sometimes she cries. The main thing to do and I advise all my children, to understand what we’re going through, this is a way to look for some more money to help me out supporting you”.
PALM scheme responses to reduce the social costs of labour migration
The PLF is introducing a ‘community of care’ approach to worker welfare which fosters culture, connections, and relationships by bringing together different regional partners/stakeholders that have a role and responsibility in supporting the health and wellbeing of workers, including for example, Australian employers, Pasifika diaspora groups, churches, the police, and community organisations. The PLF are also supporting additional community liaison staff in Australia and welfare staff in some LSUs to support both workers and families experiencing family separation issues.

Some LSUs are starting to involve families in pre-departure briefing sessions. A family readiness pilot program in Vanuatu (Famili I Redi) assists couples to gain a better understanding of what to expect from work in Australia, and learn techniques to maintain respectful, empathetic, and compassionate long-distance relationships and negotiate financial management.

Meanwhile, the PLF is continuing its social research with PALM scheme workers and families, including expanding its longitudinal study to other nationalities and workers from diverse backgrounds.

The Pacific Labour Facility is implemented by Palladium. Alinea International provides monitoring, evaluation and research support services to the PLF.

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