Alice and Scott* have been running their two-storey pub-turned-backpacker hostel in Queensland’s Wide Bay region, north of Brisbane, for more a decade. Over the years they’ve provided accommodation for thousands of backpackers and itinerant workers who come to the region for fruit-picking jobs.
Before the pandemic, the hostel bustled with backpackers – “mostly from Europe, some Asian backpackers” too, Alice explains. Now they cater exclusively for Pacific Islanders on temporary visas.
We’re sitting in the hostel’s backyard watching a group of men still in their high-vis work gear, barbecuing their dinner. They’re from Vanuatu, Scott says. They’ve been at the hostel for many months. The yard is enclosed by a high wooden fence now. “We had to put that up to stop people looking in, abusing our workers,” Alice says. “People still think these foreigners are taking Aussie jobs.”
They’re not. Australia has had a huge shortage of farm workers since borders were closed in March 2020 and backpacker numbers dried up. Backpacker numbers have not rebounded since the border reopened. In 2019, more than 140,000 young people on the Working Holiday Maker visa flocked to Australia. In 2022, less than half that number had arrived.
In response, the federal government has been offering more and more work visas under the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme (PALM), a federal government program that allows farmers (and other eligible employers – in July 2022 the federal government expanded the scheme to the services sector) to recruit workers from nine Pacific Island nations as well as Timor Leste.
In 2019, under the PALM scheme’s predecessor policies, there were 6,753 temporary migrants from Pacific Island nations in Australia. By the end of 2022 it was almost 24,000. By the end of this is year it is expected to be 40,000.
But the switch from dependence on backpackers to Pacific Islanders has been bumpy.
Cultural differences fuel misunderstandings
For a new report published by Griffith University on the state of seasonal farm work in Australia, I interviewed more than 40 stakeholders in business, government and the community sectors about the challenges of farms shifting from backpackers to Pacific Island workers.
It’s a familiar story of the problems that arise with the arrival of a new group of migrants into a community.
Assumptions about “cultural differences” fuel misunderstandings in regional communities. Several pubs in farming towns have imposed blanket bans on Pacific Islanders (on the grounds of excessive drinking and unruly behaviour), whereas backpackers and other workers are still allowed.
Shifting cohorts of migrant workers also change the role of accommodation providers like Alice and Scott. Backpackers would stay for no more than a few months, and could move on when they liked, being free to chose who they worked for. PALM workers can stay for up to nine months on “seasonal” visas and up to four years on long-term visas, and they are bound to their sponsoring employer. This means they need long-term accommodation.
With this change, hostels like Alice and Scott’s are also providing more than just housing. They often facilitate the daily transport, supermarket runs, airport pick-ups, as well as providing social activities, general care, and what Alice called “lending an ear”.
“When they first arrive we have to show them everything,” Alice said. “Settle them in, show them how things are done here in Australia. It’s totally different to where they’re from.”
Another hostel manager told me: “We take them to church – there’s three different churches we drop them to at the weekend. Then they go to the local rugby team.”
These informal support services filling a void in formal services.
The PALM scheme does require sponsoring employers to provide “cultural support” – vaguely defined as cultural, social and religious activities – but there are no formal provisions to ensure those employing Pacific Islanders understand the type of cultural support their workers need.
My research indicates those signing up to the scheme are unsure about their obligations and are fumbling through the process.
“There’s no induction, you just get a bunch of Islanders arrive at your doorstep, fresh off the plane,” one hostel operator said. “I had no idea what church they go to, or even how I should refer to them. Can I say ‘Islander’? Is that appropriate?”
With Pacific Islanders becoming an increasingly crucial component of Australia’s rural workforce, building cultural awareness shouldn’t be an afterthought. My report argues that making cultural education part of the PALM scheme can help mitigate tensions and misunderstandings.
Training, awareness and information should be implemented by Pacific people here in regional communities. They know their cultural and social responsibilities, and can ease local Australian businesses and newly arrived Pacific Island workers into meaningful, long-term relationships. As one support service representative said:
Leadership must come from Pacific people themselves, not Australians.
If we are serious about nurturing our “Pacific Family” we can’t expect local businesses to erect high walls around their backyards, sealing off these workers from divided communities.
* Names have been changed.