Managing Our Growing ‘Brain Drain’ Crisis

Seasonal Work (SW) has raked in millions in foreign currency exchange earnings into the economy and into homes across Vanuatu since the RSE and the SWP commenced in April 2007 and 2012 respectively.

But it has also wrecked havoc with important national human resources in the country. The Investopedia website defines the ‘Tragedy of the commons’ as a situation where ‘individuals neglect the well-being of society in the pursuit of personal gain’.

SW may well be the most challenging ‘Tragedy of the commons’ that we’ve ever encountered since Independence. It has turned bittersweet in more ways than one, thus the swifter and more effectively we deal with it, the better.

The Chairman of the VHRA (Bryan Death) is dead right in pinpointing a plausible major cause of the ‘quality of service’ issue within the tourism industry as highlighted by ‘Inside Viewpoint’ in last week’s column. I thank him for bringing the implications of SW to the fore so authorities concerned can address it much more comprehensively and systematically than we may have ever done thus far.

A chef involved in the culinary competition that’s taken place in town this week lamented the fact that the Vanuatu Chefs and Food Handlers Association has to train new chefs from scratch as a lot of the ones they’ve trained and worked with in the past ‘have all gone away for fruit picking’.

On deeper reflection, we can characterise seasonal work as an unstoppable bullet train that’s presently travelling at breakneck speed away from Vanuatu. We have driven past the previous regional SWP champion (Tonga) recently.

The feeling of being the Pacific’s No.1 is refreshing, but the impact on our alreadyshallow labour pool as pointed out in Bryan’s letter over the weekend is frightening.

The challenge is not any particular individual’s fault, but ours as a country – and it includes our political, industry, agency and institutional leaders. Seasonal work Agents are directly responsible as well as they are the ones at the frontline implementing the Government’s pro-labour mobility policy.

They have a very important duty to play in helping to limit the brain drain and the national human resource disaster that’s already brewing right now before it gets completely and uncontrollably out of hand.

Seasonal work in the horticulture sector was designed for our unskilled labour market. Today we have local chefs, commercial bank, private sector and even Government employees picking fruit in Australia and NZ. Who said these schemes were for them? We also have rotten apples (i.e., individuals who are supposed to be on the Employment Services Unit’s Stand-Down list) still having fun doing seasonal work under the RSE and SWP. The ESU’s monitoring and compliance mechanisms are critically and seriously weak and faulty, while the high speed bullet train rushes on. This is a complete mockery on the system.

The Government encourages both tourism and SW. Tourism addresses the broader economic development aspirations of the country more than anything else, while the latter largely targets the issue of massive unemployment affecting the broad spectrum of unskilled ni-Vanuatu citizens. But I think we’ve reached a point where we need to stop running, slow down, think and improve operations. Some possible solutions moving forward.

Firstly, government regulation plays a pivotal role in addressing the Tragedy of the commons. The Government (through the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Department of Labour and its ESU as implementing agency of the labour mobility program) has to address this issue immediately.

Review our policies, regulations, processes, monitoring/compliance mechanisms, screening processes, and our entire systems in order to rectify the mess we’ve created for ourselves. Set a deadline (preferrably early December 2019) for all these actions, bite the bullet and bend all efforts toward the target date and get it done. We need to stop tampering around on the periphery and face this issue head-on.

Secondly, the ESU and its agents (RSE/SWP) must address the issue of tourism/ hospitality industry workers going away for fruit picking jobs in Australia/NZ. Possibly other industries too. We need to enter damage-control mode and scrutinize applicants to ensure no more skills drain out of the economy than what is absolutely necessary (such as drivers). We need to know where these applicants are coming from too. Labour/ESU and the agents need to address this immediately. The MOU signed on Tuesday last week between the VTO, tourism industry partners and the MOE addresses the training side of things as a medium to longer term measure. But we need crisis-management action now.

Thirdly, Labour and ESU must pull the plug on the practice of DIRECT RECRUITMENT by overseas employers. This has been an ongoing sticky thorne on a number of fronts, a key one being poor screening and vetting of workers. We cannot justify the practice. It is bad policy. Strong leadership must be exercised here. We need to do it to salvage the grave human resources crisis we are currently faced with. At whatever cost this may be, we need to do it for the sake of our country, not for those employers.

Finally and most importantly, our industries (tourism, manufacturing, etc.) need to uphold the core VALUE, ATTITUDE and mindset for ‘SERVICE’ in the minds of their ni-Vanuatu employees.

Of course people need skills and capacity building, but a lot of workplace practices (even among graduates) also relate to people’s attitudes to work.

These are not taught at university or any institution of learning. It is supposed to be part of our culture, religion, and our basic upbringing. I am not convinced we as ni- Vanuatu employees have taxed our efforts enough to be faithful servants in the workplace. You see this lax and despicable attitude even among Government workers who are well paid and yet who muck around in the workplace and expect to be paid every fortnight.

Labour Department must take immediate leadership to curb the massive brain drain threatening our country, and must do it NOW!

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