The Pacific Labour Scheme: no families allowed?

A farming family standing in front of their tractor in Nuku'alofa, Tonga (Asian Development Bank/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
A farming family standing in front of their tractor in Nuku'alofa, Tonga (Asian Development Bank/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Written by Stephen Howes

The Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) was announced in September 2017. It’s a welcome initiative to allow greater access for Pacific Island workers to the Australian labour market. While currently capped at 2,000 (and it’s not clear if that is per year or in total), it has huge potential. As the PLS fact sheet says, it will “enable citizens of Pacific island countries to take up low and semi-skilled work opportunities in rural and regional Australia for up to three years.”

For all its potential, there are some odd aspects to the PLS. One is the hands-on role of DFAT, which will have primary responsibility for screening prospective employers for participation in the program. That’s the Department of Foreign Affairs. Pre-approval for the Seasonal Worker Programme (or SWP, which allows Pacific Islanders to come to Australia to work on farms typically for up to six months) is the responsibility of the Department of Jobs and Small Business. It is widely perceived not to have sufficiently promoted the SWP, and to have taken a very risk-averse approach. Perhaps DFAT will do a better job.

Another oddity is the initial focus on Nauru, Tuvalu and Kiribati. These are certainly three remote and relatively isolated countries. But Nauru is at full employment due to its processing centre. Tuvalu, like Nauru, is tiny and has some access to the New Zealand labour market. That leaves Kiribati, perhaps the most remote, but also a relatively small and one of the least healthy of all the Pacific island countries. At least one of the Melanesian countries such as Vanuatu or Solomon Islands should be added as pilot source countries.

An odd and worrying aspect of the scheme is the restriction that workers will not be able to bring their families with them. This isn’t mentioned in the fact sheet, but was made clear when the scheme was explained at the recent Brisbane Pacific Labour Mobility Annual Meeting.

This is odd because the closest counterpart to this new scheme is what used to be called the 457, now the Temporary Skill Shortage visa. That visa now provides work rights for a two- or three-year period. Under it, workers are allowed to bring their families.

The PLS ban on family entry is worrying because surely it can’t be a good thing to separate families for three years. More so because presumably workers will be allowed to return for a second or third stint. So the separation might be not for three years but six or nine years.

There is a serious discrepancy between the safeguards proposed to stop worker exploitation and enforcing family separation. There are five paragraphs in the two-page PLS fact sheet answering the question: “How will the Australian Government protect Pacific workers?” Pacific workers will have their own 24/7 hotline; they will get special briefings; their employers will be pre-approved. But what about protecting workers from the social costs of family separation?

I imagine that this restriction has come about because of the genesis of the PLS (and its predecessor, the microstate visa) in the SWP, which also doesn’t allow families. But that makes sense for a six-month program. It makes much less sense for a 36-month (or longer) program.

Perhaps allowing workers to bring their families is seen as putting too much of a burden on employers. And too much of a fiscal cost on the government.  Other countries, for example Korea, run temporary low-skill programs that don’t allow dependents.

At the end of the day though, we need to have some policy consistency. It makes no sense for two-year 457 visa-holders to be able to bring their families and for three-year PLS visa-holders not to be able to. It is true that 457 visa holders have to be paid at least $53,900, whereas many in the PLS will be on the minimum wage, which equates to an annual salary of $36,100. There may be worries that, accompanied by their family, Pacific workers will be unable to send sufficient remittances home. But spouses would presumably come with work rights (as they do under the 457), and these sorts of very personal decisions should be left to families, not governments.

While Pacific workers should be allowed to bring their families with them, health and education costs should be largely borne by the workers (as with the 457). Some workers might choose not to bring their family. Some will not have a family. But for those who do, the opportunity to bring them to Australia, and give their children three years or more of good education, will immeasurably enhance the value of their stay. The presence of families will be a boon to the regional communities they will be living in. And the avoidance of a ban on families will allow Australia to say, hand on heart, that it welcomes not only Pacific workers, but also Pacific people.

Stephen Howes

Stephen Howes is the Director of the Development Policy Centre and a Professor of Economics at the Crawford School.


  • Thank you for highlighting this important issue about family separation. Being away from home for long periods triggers a myriad of issues for any family anywhere really – and is no different for developing Countries. Pacific household units also are integral to broader community and cultural cohesion. Welcome this article and the broader implications.

  • I worry that separation from family for 3years is too much. I would personally want extra leave to return home to the village at least every 6months for my workers. On the other hand there would be options if a) auto approved visitors visas for families to come during that period (visitors visas are more often denied as I have had experience with) or b) as Shailendra has touched on – wouldn’t this be a great opportunity for the family to come to Australia and access the health and education standards that many of us Australians take for granted. The Australian govt injects a large $ input into our Pacific neighbours budgets to improve their health and education standards at home already so how easy would it be to bring that family out for the period and allow them to access these services here. Common sense would indicate that the idea of the current SWP is for workers to earn and return home to improve their families futures without having a long absence from their village community. We need to be careful that the PLS does not fracture these ideals.
    In regards to Tuvula, Nauru and Kiribati having priority access to the first 2000places I have no issue with this as I believe they will not have the workforce to fill these places then other pacific neighbours (like the Sols) will be welcomed to join the program whilst it is still in its infancy. The PLS is a long overdue important opportunity for our pacific neighbours as well as Aussie businesses, even if it does still require tweaking we need to make it work for the benefit of all. I too agree that visa free travel for the pacific would be wonderful!!

  • I agree that offering the pilot to countries that seem to have existing alternative labour markets could be inappropriate, but I’m not sure how being deemed to be one of the “least healthy” within the Pacific Region, detracts from a country’s inclusion in the pilot?

    • Hi Bianca, I’m not saying that Kiribati shouldn’t be included. Indeed, as one of the 20 poorest countries in the world, it certainly should be. But the truth is that its serious health problems, as well as its weak education system, will limit the number of workers it can send to Australia. Hence the need for other countries to be added to the pilot. Regards, Stephen.

  • Yes, totally agree that people should be able to choose to bring their families. Those on Australia Awards scholarships have the choice to bring their families and have to support them on their own, why should it be different for those doing unskilled labour? This could also make the program more accessible to women, who may be more reluctant to leave family behind, or may have more freedom to travel if they are able to bring their spouse. I reckon there’s a lot of rural and regional towns that would really welcome an injection of kids into their primary schools etc as well. A former colleague of mine bought her family out with her to do Australia Award study in Armadale (not that small a place I know) and it was a very positive experience, the community was very supportive.

  • The Pacific Labour Scheme is one of the best things going in the region. It seems to be growing from strength-to-strength, reasons being that measures are implemented to improve and enhance the project by ironing out problems and introducing new and better initiatives, based on past experience. Making the program more flexible and family-friendly will add more value to the program. It could improve workers’ quality of life and subsequently boost their productivity. Besides good soft diplomacy to counter China, there are multiple other benefits, such as the exposure to good education for the workers’ children. Australia and the Pacific are one, and these are important steps towards stronger and deeper integration—social, cultural and economic— and perhaps one day in the future, visa-free travel and entry for the Pacific.

    • We workers under the SWP wanted to see an extension on working visas. In our experience, six months is not sufficient, as we do not make enough money during this period. After we pay our expenses on three and a half months, we only have had two and half months to recover. We want flexible working visas that allow us to work for other farmers, and we should be allowed to move around Australia to work for other farmers. However, the SWP is improving. Thanks to the Australia government and Australian farmers. God bless you all. ta

      • Hi Timothy, I am so happy you are one of the lucky ones to participate in the SWP. Many approved employers would welcome an extension of the six months visa to 9 which would cover most of our harvest season. Yes the program is still evolving and I have great faith that in the next few years this program will expand more than we ever hoped for. Becoming better and better for all. Keep up the good work.

        • Thanks Kerry McCarthy for your response. Another experience we encounter during our work here is that we have too many public holidays. We want the Department to know that we not here for a holiday, or don’t take us like the backpackers. We shouldn’t be called holiday workers. We are here to work for short periods of time. We have only a very limited time to make money. But when we have so many public holidays or days off, we don’t make enough money to take home. The people who bring us here are making money while we workers we’re not happy. However, thank you to the Australian government and Australian farmers. And Australia thanks for your kindness. Nice people. Love Australia talofa.

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