Nick Taylor l Palladium - Mar 06 2024
Fresh Hope for Bougainville Women on a Tasmanian Berry Farm

On a crisp morning in Tasmania, Shirley starts her shift at a berry farm just north of Launceston, Tasmania, Australia. It’s peak harvest season and the fields are bursting with fresh strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries destined for markets across Australia.

Shirley is one of 20 women from the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea (PNG) selected by Hillwood Berries to work on their farm on the banks of the Tamar River.

These women are some of the first workers from this part of PNG to take part in the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme, and their recruitment is a milestone for a region that has experienced years of conflict. They’re part of a cohort that arrived in early October of 2023 and will stay through the picking season till about April of 2024.

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.

“The impact of the conflict is still present in our community where local jobs and income are below average,” Shirley shares. The Bougainville Conflict, which spanned from 1988 to 1998, was a secessionist war between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and the Papua New Guinea government. Ultimately, it resulted in a significant loss of life and destruction and a peace agreement was only reached in 2001, leading to the establishment of the Autonomous Bougainville Government.

The region is clearly still affected over 20 years later. “Employment and education opportunities are mostly on the mainland of PNG and therefore out of reach for most of us. Bougainvilleans are bright people, however we struggle to access the means for a better life,” adds Shirley.

The PNG Government recently committed to a target of 8,000 workers in labour mobility by 2025, which opens the way for other women like Shirley and her colleagues to get involved. They bring strong traditions of leadership and skills that have helped them adjust to their new working environment.

Building a Base of Confidence and Ambition

Mary Jane, who was previously a social worker in Bougainville for local women explains that the collective experience of working on the PALM scheme haslifted the group’s self-confidence and ambitions. “Working with other women from Bougainville and sharing our experiences helps all of us better understand what we are capable of doing in life,” she says.

Beatrice, who has been involved with the Bougainville Women’s Federation said that the PALM scheme allows her to continue her work advocating for women’s rights back home. “Our volunteer experience helps us with communication which is important to support one another,” she explains.

“Having the means to earn money here will lead to the broader economic empowerment of women in Bougainville.”

Seasonal Worker Manager at Hillwood Berries, Leanne McKinnon, who grew up in Bougainville says she is committed to seeing these women succeed. “For me, it’s a personal objective that they do well. These women lack opportunity but being here gives them hope for the future.”

McKinnon explains that all of the women are looking to continue their education, support their families, and give back to the community. “I would like to look back in a few years to see that we made an impact.”

Shirley hopes to see more women from Bougainville and mainland PNG work on the PALM scheme. “We all aspire to make something of ourselves and to make the best use of our resources. We left as leaders for our local communities, and we will return home as role models to inspire the next generation of leaders.”

“We have much to gain, but also so much to offer.”

Bougainville’s participation in the PALM scheme is facilitated by the Autonomous Bougainville Government, the PNG Labour Mobility Unit, and the Honourable Peter Tsiamalili Jnr, PNG Minister for Internal Security and Regional Member for Bougainville, with support from the Australian Government. For more, read 'PNG Aged Care Workers Welcomed into Australian Labour Initiative' or contact