The Australian Government’s Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) provides workers from nine Pacific island countries and Timor-Leste opportunities for employment in low and semi-skilled occupations in rural and regional Australia for up to three years. It marked one year of operation on 30 June. According to some, there was little to celebrate. Reports called it a ‘flop’ and ‘broken’, that, after a ‘disappointing start’, was ‘letting relations down’. No-one was complimentary.
The common complaint was that the scheme’s first year numbers were unimpressive, with only 203 workers in its first year of operation. While now uncapped, the PLS had initially been established with an annual cap of 2,000, and, with that as a natural point of comparison, 203 certainly looks small.
Kiribati accounts for the bulk of the year’s workers with a 42% share of workers (Figure 1). Kiribati was granted a ‘head start’, as it was part of the PLS’s precursor, the Northern Australia Worker Pilot Program. In fact, about 50 of the 203 working in 2018-19 under the PLS arrived under the precursor scheme. The others all arrived this year. Vanuatu, one of the dominant three sending countries to Australia for seasonal workers, follows Kiribati with a 24% PLS share. Four other countries contributed a few workers each.
The PLS is also a complex scheme, running across different sectors, all with their own needs and requirements in terms of labour market testing, skills and recruitment. Sending countries also need to gear up to support the PLS. Participation in the scheme doesn’t just happen. It is resource intensive – marketing to prospective industries and employers, supporting employer recruitment efforts, preparing workers to participate and to mobilise.
Yes, worker numbers are low. But it’s early days yet.