Nick Taylor l Palladium - Dec 05 2023
“A Buzz of Excitement”: PNG Aged Care Workers Welcomed into Australian Labour Initiative


When a group of aged care workers from Papua New Guinea (PNG) arrived in Queensland, Australia in June 2023, it was good news for several regional communities suffering a shortage of care staff. The nine women were the first group of workers from PNG to be employed in Australia's aged care sector under the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme.

The PALM scheme is an Australian Government initiative that allows eligible Australian businesses in a range of sectors to hire workers from the Pacific and Timor-Leste when there are not enough local staff available.

In rural and regional Australia, the scheme is supporting greater resilience in the aged care sector, giving hope to the growing number of Australians and their families requiring assistance.

The workers from PNG are now settled in their roles at Southern Cross Care Queensland (SCCQ) sites in the regional communities of Taroom, Murgon, and Chinchilla, as part of the PALM scheme Aged Care Expansion program. The program expands on the government’s existing aged care pilots to support an additional 500 PALM scheme workers to obtain a Certificate III in Individual Support (Ageing).

In countries like PNG where care-related industries are growing, it creates a potential skills dividend. It also provides greater opportunities for Pacific and Timorese women under the scheme. Workers are offered on-the-job training and formal qualifications, and aged care providers get access to secure, qualified, long-term workers from the Pacific and Timor-Leste.

“We’re grateful to have their support. It has made a real difference and been uplifting for our residents and our team,” says Hannah Green, Residential Manager at SCCQ Taroom.

Aged care operators across Australia have been facing acute workforce shortages as a growing number of Australians require home and residential care. SCCQ CEO Jason Eldering notes that the problem was particularly challenging in regional areas where local workers are hard to find, placing enormous pressure on aged care providers. “We face unique workforce challenges in rural and remote locations which are different to metropolitan areas,” he explains. “These aged care workers will boost our staff numbers and help to fill the gaps in our rural and remote aged care homes.”

For the nine PALM scheme workers from PNG, the opportunity to work in the aged care sector in Australia offers the chance to earn good wages and support their families and communities back home, while developing new and valuable skills. Anna, from Milne Bay Province in PNG who has started working at SCCQ Chinchilla, says that mutual curiosity has helped to break the ice between the new workers and residents. “I’m developing friendships with the residents. They’re asking a lot of questions about life in PNG and I’m enjoying learning about their life stories,” she says.

PNG and Australia have deep cultural and historical bonds and have supported each other for many years. When Prime Ministers James Marape and Anthony Albanese met in January 2023, the leaders declared their intention to significantly boost PNG's participation in the PALM scheme.

Prime Minister Marape’s ambition to deploy 8,000 PALM scheme workers to Australia was supported by Prime Minister Albanese who flagged the care sector as an opportunity that would benefit both countries. While this is the first time that PNG PALM scheme workers have been recruited into Australia’s aged care sector, workers from the Pacific and Timor-Leste have become highly regarded for their traditions of caretaking.

Caretaking is an intimate practice requiring trust and confidence between the carer and recipient, something that Residential Support Manager of SCCQ Western Downs, Lance Payne, has witnessed with the PNG PALM scheme workers. “There’s been a real buzz of excitement across our aged care homes. The warmth and friendliness they show is already seeing relationships grow with our residents and staff,” he says.

Karren, from Eastern Highlands Province in PNG and currently employed by SCCQ Taroom, adds that she’s grateful to be able to support the local elderly community. “Coming to work is my favourite time of the day. I really enjoy spending time with the residents. Spending time with them in the garden has been great.”

As part of their duties, PALM scheme workers monitor the needs of residents and provide personalised care, while arranging activities designed to enhance different kinds of wellbeing. “They promote the wellbeing of older people by enabling them to stay as independent as possible and supporting their needs in a residential care environment, whether that be emotional, social or physical support,” Lance explains.

Since settling into their new homes, the workers from PNG have gained a degree of local stardom, with members of the local community praising them for their work. “Everyone has been welcoming and we feel valued for what we bring,” adds Michelle from Port Moresby who is working at SCCQ Murgon.

For workers like Ancy from East Sepik Province in PNG who has just recently started at SCCQ Chinchilla, the training has introduced her to new work practices and technology. “We are learning our way into the role and gaining new skills such as the operation of equipment. Although this has been a little challenging at times, we are well supported and always eager to learn more.”

For more, read the Australian Government's 2022-23 APS State of the Service Report which highlights PLF's Aged Care Expansion Project