The Conversation - Reaping what we sow: cultural ignorance undermines Australia’s recruitment of Pacific Island workers

The cracks in Australia’s labour market have deepened since borders closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.  In response, the Federal Government has offered more work visas under the Pacific Australian Labour Mobility Scheme (PALM), allowing farmers to recruit more workers from Pacific Island nations, including Timor Leste. By the end of 2023, it is expected that 40,000 temporary migrants will be working on Australian farms.

The PALM scheme is seen by many Islanders as an opportunity to earn good money, build new skills, send money home to family and shape a better future. However, Australia’s workforce woes are causing a mass exodus of Pacific Islanders from their home nations which is putting pressure on Pacific Island development prospects.

Griffith University has recently published a report, ‘Turbulent Times’, on the state of seasonal farm work. The report found that misunderstandings in ‘cultural differences’ have fuelled frustration in regional communities. Racism and exploitation of vulnerable workers, incidents of racial abuse and sexual harassment were common experiences of workers interviewed for the report.  Several pubs in regional towns have imposed blanket bans on Pacific Islanders, however, the same rules are not imposed on backpacker workers. A shifting cohort in migrant workers has simultaneously changed the role of accommodation providers. Poor standards of hostel accommodation are a common grievance. PALM workers generally remain in accommodation for longer than backpackers, staying for up to 9 months on seasonal visas or up to 4 years on long term visas. PALM sponsors provide accommodation and ‘cultural support’ to these employees, however this form of support is vague and there are no explicit formal requirements to ensure sponsors understand the depth of cultural support their workers may require. 

Pacific islanders are becoming an increasingly imperative component of our agriculture and farmland systems, and understanding and building cultural awareness and providing support to these individuals should not be an afterthought. The extreme labour shortages seen in 2021 and throughout 2022 demonstrate the ongoing reliance that Australian horticulture has on migration schemes, such as the PALM. Better cultural education and support must be provided to communities, employers and migrant workers to  assist in mitigating tensions and misunderstandings.

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