This blog post is the first output of a project led by Dr Kirstie Petrou and Dr Tess Newton Cain, which focuses on how employers in Vanuatu’s tourism industry are being affected by increased participation in labour mobility programs.
In the last decade, thousands of people have travelled from islands in the Pacific to Australia and New Zealand through temporary labour migration schemes, which aim to fill gaps in Australian and New Zealand labour markets while providing training and skills development. While participation rates in labour mobility schemes were initially low, they gradually rose with the lure of higher wages and possibilities abroad. The COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent border closures led to a temporary halt in seasonal labour recruitment by Australian and New Zealand employers. Following the resumption in late 2020, participation rapidly increased as employers in Australia and New Zealand urgently sought to fill labour shortages. The sharp increase in participation has led governments in the Pacific and employers to voice concerns about ‘brain drain’, the loss of skilled workers from their domestic economies, particularly in industries such as tourism and hospitality, which are significant contributors to GDP for many countries in the region. In the Pacific labour losses and ‘brain drain’ have been a longstanding part of the discourse on labour mobility. Until recently, the evidence for ‘brain drain’ effects has been largely anecdotal; however, our preliminary conversations with Vanuatu’s tourism industry indicate that employers in the sector do not adequately understand the labour mobility schemes to address the growing issues around employee losses appropriately. Therefore, our project aims to generate reliable data about employee losses and develop resources to assist Vanuatu’s tourism industry employers in understanding these schemes and how they affect skills and employment in the sector.
To identify local sentiment surrounding the labour ‘brain drain’, we conducted a media scan of local outlets in Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga, whose GDP heavily relies upon tourism and hospitality. The scan included media sources from before and after the COVID-19 pandemic. The variety of countries included within the media scan illustrates the abundance of different perspectives across the region. The scan only covered English language media sources, producing 19 articles, of which 52.6% reflected mixed or neutral views on labour mobility schemes and their impacts on Pacific nations, 36.8% were negative, and 10.6% had positive viewpoints. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, media outlets tended to write about the threat posed by ‘brain drain’ from labour mobility schemes; post-pandemic, the narrative altered, focusing on finding solutions and fixing the labour shortage problem.
In Vanuatu, articles from media outlets, including the Vanuatu Daily Post and Radio New Zealand, which is based in New Zealand but covers the Pacific region, displayed mixed feelings towards labour mobility schemes. One article concluded that ‘labour mobility programs have contributed significantly to the economic growth and addressed the unemployment issues amongst the workforce of this country’. However, another characterised ‘seasonal work as an unstoppable bullet train that’s presently travelling at breakneck speed away from Vanuatu’, signalling the brain drain impacts on Vanuatu’s economy from labour mobility schemes.
The Fiji Times and Fiji Sun newspapers contributed to local sentiment within Fiji. The media outlets produced a generally negative view of labour mobility schemes, consistently citing the considerable skill shortages and abundance of lower-skill workers flooding the domestic economy. Fijian Minister for Employment, Productivity and Industrial Relations Agni Deo Singh has reiterated the negativity towards seasonal work, referencing, “The loss of skilled labour, the loss of skilled manpower, and now we have to import labour from countries like Bangladesh, Philippines and the like”.
The Samoa Observer, the only newspaper in the country, produced several media articles with a mixed view, seeing the significant economic benefits and recognising the harms caused to the domestic economy. A recent article portrayed this point when it wrote, ‘Samoa wants prosperity without losing its most capable people, but at the same time it wants prosperity that cannot be afforded by working in Samoa’. This statement encapsulates the views towards seasonal work on the island, acknowledging the wage disparity between Samoa and Australia.
In contrast, the media sources for Tonga, Matangi Tonga and Radio New Zealand, portrayed a slightly more positive view of labour mobility, emphasising the increased ‘jobs opportunities for its own skilled and non-skilled labourers’. Another article captured the positive economic, social, and community benefits seasonal workers bring back to the country upon completing their program. It highlights the financial support Tongan workers can provide to their families and communities during frequent natural disasters.
The generally mixed views and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic are reflected in the number of people participating in seasonal worker programs from each country between 2022-23. Fiji contributed 4849, Samoa contributed 6736, and Tonga contributed 6449 workers toward labour mobility schemes. However, these figures are dwarfed by Vanuatu, which contributed 16562 workers, 11.5% of the adult population between the ages of 20-59. This is a substantial proportion of labour to be unavailable to the domestic labour market and is likely to have an impact on the availability of skilled workers in the tourism sector as well as elsewhere in the economy. These numbers indicated the underlying necessity of our research, in collaborating with the Vanuatu Hotels and Resorts Association and other tourism industry employers, to develop an adequate understanding of the labour mobility schemes to address issues around employee losses in their domestic economies.
Lewis Rothwell is an undergraduate student at Griffith University, currently completing an internship with the Griffith Asia Institute.