Opinion: What do Pacific workers think about Australia’s Engagement Visa?

Fijian workers before they departed for Australia in June. PHOTO: Fiji government

The new Australia Pacific Engagement Visa has sparked great interest from Pacific workers in Australia, however there is a need for clarification around the details of the scheme, Akka Rimon writes.

A major policy of Australia’s new government has been the establishment of a Pacific Engagement Visa, which will open the door to 3,000 migrants from the region every year. However, whilst there is significant interest from current workers as to whether they are eligible for the scheme, information on eligibility or allocations is scarce.

The new visa is inspired by the Albanese government’s promise to build a stronger Pacific Family, where climate security holds a central place. The prevailing question is how will the visa address the immediate needs of climate and disaster-displaced communities? Will bigger provisions apply to countries on a case-by-case basis, or will the scheme mostly benefit higher mobility countries such as Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga?

One major group whose voice has been undervalued in this debate is Pacific workers themselves, who have come through the numerous labour programs that have been established in the last decade. In order to understand how they viewed the scheme; this author spoke with many currently in Australia.

One such worker is Mary, an aged carer who arrived in Australia in 2016 under the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS). When asked about the new visa, Mary expressed some confusion about how and to whom the visa would apply saying she had seen it in the news, but didn’t know if she would be eligible.

One aspect of the scheme that Mary enthusiastically highlighted was its provision allowing migrants to bring their immediate families with them to Australia, saying it would be “A dream come true if I’m allowed to bring my children here. It’s so difficult being away from them for nearly 10 years now, I have practically missed out on their childhood!”

Nan and Ron, two others that work at the same aged care company, echoed Mary’s aspirations, musing, “If the visa allows us to invite our loved ones, we can become a complete family again!”

For others outside the care sector, many reflected on the the first experience moving to Australia, and on the opportunities it has brought. For 28-year old Tom, for example, he reminisced about his initial arrival to Australia, saying “It was a completely new world for me… it took me a while to adapt, it’s nothing short of an eye-opening experience”. He continued “It’s worth the sacrifice as I’ve learnt lots of skills.”

Tabu, another PLS worker, believes the new visa could mean a new beginning for workers like himsaying, “I’m encouraged this visa could be a pathway for me to aspire bigger leadership roles.”

Many PLS workers noted that whilst they have heard about the new scheme, their understanding of the eligibility details is slim.

Additionally, whilst workers were happy about the prospect of their families joining them in Australia, some also raised anxieties related to relocation. Common concerns included finance and travel costs, affordable accommodation, education and medical costs, and their ability to thrive in a different country – whether it be overcoming language and communication barriers, or coping with the cold weather.

Moreover, whilst the majority of PLS workers emphatically believe that Australia is a good country for them to live in, they also noted that they have faced challenges with racism, overwork, and lack of acknowledgement from their employers regarding grievances or bonuses.

Looking away from Australia and towards the region, many Pacific leaders are optimistic about how the visa scheme can help their countries.

Kiribati Minister for Employment Hon Taabeta Teakai, when asked about the program said “It’s a promising development, the Government of Kiribati is keen to learn how the new visa will translate for Kiribati”.

For smaller islands like Kiribati and Tuvalu, who face existential threats from climate change, the visa scheme provides an important adaptation tool through labour migration. However, for the program to achieve its full potential, it is essential that the government put appropriate support services in place and ensure workers’ rights are upheld and Pacific workers have full dignity as first class citizens. It is imperative that the Australian community is fully prepared to embrace Pacific migrants, and that leaders do everything they can to help them settle safely.

Lastly, it is crucial for the Australian Government to provide preferential access to workers who have experience in pre-existing programs. These workers have already exemplified their hard work, sacrifice, skills, and experience, and importantly have pre-existing exposure to Australia. Their relationships with employers and diasporic communities will ensure they can smoothly transition to permanent residence, as well as provide support for future migrants.

As an announcement, the Pacific Engagement Visa offers plenty of potential. Now the hard work should begin to make that potential a reality.

This article first appeared on the Policy Forum blog.