Several hundred attendees gathered at Port Vila’s National Convention Centre this week to discuss virtually every aspect of labour mobility.

This landmark summit brought together government representatives from Australia, New Zealand and Vanuatu, as well as people from the private sector on both the sending and receiving ends of the commercial relationship. Labour union figures, NGO workers and the Vanuatu National Provident Fund also played prominent roles.

This is the first time such a large, high profile gathering has discussed labour mobility in the Pacific.

According to the Australian department of agriculture, over 1,000 Ni-Vanuatu workers participated in the programme in 2016, and the number has only grown since then. Stephen Howes, director of the Australian National University’s Development Policy Centre, expects Vanuatu to overtake Tonga as the single largest contributor of workers to the programme sometime this year.

Preliminary data from an upcoming World Bank report indicates that on average, each Ni Vanuatu SWP worker brings home just under AU $10,000 at the end of their 6-month engagement.

New Zealand’s commitment to labour mobility goes back even further. The RSE programme celebrated its tenth anniversary last year. New Zealand Immigration figures show that nearly 1,700 Ni Vanuatu workers entered New Zealand during the first year of the programme. In the 2016-2017 season, that number rose to nearly 4,200.

When relatively large numbers of any population begin to move about, there are certain to be issues. Despite the many benefits, people have raised a number of concerns, ranging from working conditions to worker discipline and behaviour.

Some worry about the economic impacts on the agricultural sector when the mostly rural participants leave their gardens en masse. Others express the fear that people who leave their home islands to work abroad will end up settling in the cities when they return.

Agents expressed frustration with the lack of public sector resources, and with the way in which the programme is administered locally. Others worried that the recent increase in the number of authorised agents, coupled with a lack of coordination, could result in confusion and reduced profits. It was reported during the meeting that some Australian farmers were receiving unsolicited offers from multiple agents, giving rise to worries that they might sour on the programme if they found it to be too much of a bother.

The value of the programmes—and of labour mobility in general—as a means of increasing prosperity and driving development in the Pacific islands is clear to everyone involved. Even as far back as 2009, impact studies showed that that Ni Vanuatu attitudes toward the RSE programme were generally positive among workers, family and community members alike.

Studies in Australia and New Zealand show that farmers get far better value for money from Pacific Island workers than from backpackers, who comprised the largest portion of seasonal workers prior to the creation of the RSE scheme and the SWP. A report published by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences indicates that SWP participants are 20% more productive, on average.

The potential for growth in labour mobility is significant. The RSE scheme now allows up to 10,500 spots from countries which have signed up to the PACER Plus agreement. The SWP is an open-ended programme. Its size is limited only by the number of planters and growers who sign up to the programme.

At the last Pacific Islands Forum, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced an entirely new labour mobility project as well. The Pacific Labour Scheme will start small, but could end up looming much larger in Ni Vanuatu workers’ employment decisions in the coming years.

The PLS is not limited to agricultural work, although it does emphasise unskilled and semi-skilled labour. Nor is it seasonal. The programme allows employment for up to three years on a single contract.

The PLS does not replace the Seasonal Worker Programme. The two will coexist for the foreseeable future.

But Vanuatu will have to wait a little while yet before it takes advantage of the scheme. A press release announcing the scheme states, “Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu will have first access to the scheme”. But even with an initial cap of about 2,000 workers, it’s likely that Ni Vanuatu will have the opportunity to partake before too long.

The meeting was attended by a high-level Vanuatu delegation. Ministers Ralph Regenvanu and Matai Seremaiah both attended, along with their staff. Asked who would be taking point on further policy development, Mr Regenvanu replied that the question of coordination and resourcing would be a key outcome of the event.

The discussion was wide-ranging and sometimes heated, but collegial at all times. It seems clear that although there is a great deal still to be done, there is a strong consensus that labour mobility is becoming an increasingly important aspect of Vanuatu’s development. This week’s summit made its importance in Ni Vanuatu people’s lives vividly clear.

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