Michelle Carnegie l Palladium - Apr 25 2022
Pacific Workers in Australia Weigh the Emotional Costs of Migrating for Work

Fijian PALM workers. Credit: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Government of Australia.

For many regional businesses across Australia, Pacific and Timorese workers are critical, ensuring crops can be harvested, meat processed, and more. The Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme is a temporary labour migration program that matches Pacific Island and Timorese workers with Australian employers for seasonal jobs for up to nine months, and longer-term roles for between one and three years.

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 sent home an estimated AUD64.2m.

The bottom line? Workers that travel to Australia for temporary employment generally earn and save more than if they had stayed at home.

However, the potential social and emotional costs associated with temporary labour migration are often ignored when 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 their absence. And workers themselves 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 their family and community support systems.

Recently, the Pacific Labour Facility (PLF), administers of the PALM Scheme, conducted 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 ‘stay-behind’ family member. 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 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.

Through video chat, one worker helps his daughter with her school homework using a whiteboard, one joins his church fellowship sessions, and another shows her family members what she proposes to buy for them during her shopping trips.

But according to the workers, nothing can really compare to being physically present with family.

“I know what they’re cooking at home. Then they know what I’m having for dinner,” says Shelini, a 32-year-old worker. “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.”

Responses to separation often differ based on family structures and stages in life, as well as support networks. Single mothers with a teenager or young adult child with extended family available to look out for them have fewer concerns about family separation than, for example, a married couple with one or more young children and a stay-behind spouse.

“For me as a single mom, I don't find it hard because my daughter has grown up,” explains a working mother on the PALM scheme with a 19-year-old daughter who lives with her family. “And she is in a good place, like she is in a safe environment, safe with my family.”

"Nothing can really compare to being physically present with family."

Tragedy Across Borders

One worker, Ashika, lost her husband to suicide during her 15th month in Australia; a shocking and unexpected incident that she believed was due to the long delays between physical meetings and all of the unknowns that came during the pandemic.

Her husband supported her to join the PALM scheme, but she thinks that his insecurities about her being in Australia when the international borders closed indefinitely deeply affected him. These insecurities and fears were only exacerbated by unclear timelines when she would be able to come home, or he could come visit her as they had planned.

These types of struggles forced many workers and families to reassess whether working in Australia was the right thing to do.

Despite the uncertainty, when workers and family members were asked about the improvements in their lives, they cited 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 for themselves.

Still, Ashika notes that one of the hardest things about being a PALM scheme worker is being without her family. Though COVID-19’s effects brought deep personal tragedy and heartbreak for Ashika, the money she earns ensures that her family is provided for, especially as much of their work has been curtailed due to lockdowns and border closures.

Without her help, her family would have struggled to pay their rent and ongoing medical costs for her elderly, sick mother. Her younger sister was laid off from her job in tourism and Ashika believes this would also have been her fate had she, too, stayed in Fiji.

Despite the hardships, 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 for an entire family.

One man, Jone, a worker’s father, recounts how much his children miss his older daughter when she’s away working. “The young ones, they miss Susi very much,” he says. “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.”

Improving Outlooks and Creating Community

To better support the health and wellbeing of workers, the PLF is introducing a ‘community of care’ approach to worker welfare that fosters culture, connections, and relationships. This begins by bringing together different regional partners and stakeholders that have a role in and responsibility for supporting workers.

These groups include Australian employers, Pasifika diaspora groups, churches, the police, and community organisations. The PLF is also supporting additional community liaison staff in Australia and welfare staff in some labour sending units to support both workers and families experiencing family separation issues.

Some units are involving families in pre-departure briefing sessions. A family readiness pilot program in Vanuatu 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 in the hopes of better understanding how to build mechanisms, processes, and policies that better support workers and families into the PALM scheme.

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. Read more about the study here.