Industry officials say Pacific businesses are desperate for staff as thousands of workers head to New Zealand and Australia.
Seasonal work schemes in both countries have been identified as the driving force behind the labor crisis in the Pacific.
With the expansion of programs in Aotearoa and Australia, outflows reached an all-time high last year.
In 2022, there were 19,000 workers in New Zealand’s Recognized Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme, a 19% increase from 2021.
The low number of revoked RSE licenses shows government agencies and businesses are “burying the problem”, the union says.
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Expanded Aotearoa plan to employ 3,000 additional seasonal workers to address labor shortages in the horticulture sector.
Data analyzed by the Development Policy Center showed that more than 6,000 workers left Samoa in 2022.
Despite recent concerns about working and living conditions, the government will allow an additional 3,000 seasonal workers into New Zealand as part of the RSE scheme.
The data shows that the exodus doubled the number of workers who left Samoa before the pandemic.
The RSE scheme was established in 2007 to address labor shortages across Aotearoa.
Samoa’s government said it temporarily suspended departures in December after reviewing its participation in labor plans.
Vanuatu has begun developing a national employment policy to counter the potential exodus of the country’s skilled workers to New Zealand’s RSE scheme.
The Vanuatu government said there are more than 5,000 ni-Vanuatu workers in RSE.
Vanuatu Labor Commissioner Muriel Multnoven welcomed the sweeping plan but warned it could exacerbate the island nation’s labor crisis.
Pacific tourism officials said many of their workers, especially those at hotels and resorts, are lured by lucrative offers to work abroad.
Traditionally designed for low-skilled or unskilled workers, the Australian Pacific Labor Mobility (PALM) scheme targets workers in the hospitality, aged care and tourism sectors.
The general manager of an exclusive resort on Taumeasina Island near Apia, Tuiataga Nathan Bucknall, said it was visited by many tour operators from New Zealand and Australia.
While visitors enjoy the sun and surf at Taumeasina, Bucknall said they are also looking for workers to hire for seasonal jobs.
He said while they are valuable customers, they may be there to recruit his staff.
Over the past 12 months, the resort has lost nearly 60 workers to seasonal plans in New Zealand and Australia to meet both countries’ growing demand for Pacific labor.
Bucknall has been forced to hire untrained staff at short notice.
“The sad thing is, we’ll train them, and then some seasonal worker program will pick them up and we’ll have to start over,” he said.
This is the reality of what happened last year. “We have become like a breeding ground for seasonal workers.”
Bucknall raises salaries to keep employees at resort. “But there is no way we can match Australia and New Zealand.”
Recent World Bank data showed that the loss of seasonal workers was a welcome occurrence for the Pacific, which relies heavily on remittances from people working abroad.
This trend is also showing signs of slowing down, the bank said.
Clive Westerlund, of Ah Leakey Wholesale in Apia, said the job schemes were created to serve the unemployed, especially in rural areas.
But the problem now, he said, is that people who were previously employed — more so than in urban areas — are applying. “They get accepted and quit their jobs.”
Westerlund said Ah Leaky Wholesale has lost 20 to 25 percent of its workers in the past two years, compared with about 5 percent annually before the pandemic.
He said the private sector was unable to compete with the wages offered abroad.
Samoa’s interim prime minister, Toala Iosefo Ponifassio, criticized Australia for what he called Canberra’s failure to consult with Apia before announcing the new visa category in October.
This leaves up to 3,000 people across the Pacific and East Timor applying for Australian permanent residency.
He said: “There is no connection with our government in this case. “They will take our workers in the tourism industry, hospitality, teachers and police officers, and they will take Matai chiefs and people who serve the village.”
Chris Crocker, executive director of South Pacific Tourism, said the skills drain and labor shortage may be temporary.
While he welcomed the expansion of the RSE initiative, Crocker said a win-win solution requires a collaborative approach from all stakeholders.
Regina Shivens, a professor at Massey University, said that would create a very large gap at home.
For too long, the plans had focused on easing New Zealand and Australia’s labor shortages, he said.
But there was no thought, Scheyvens added, about whether the plans could hinder long-term autonomous development in the Pacific.
“We need to take a good look at what else has been done to support the growth of Pacific economies, so governments don’t have to resort to exporting their labor as a major source of income and can instead retain their own people.”
Westerlund urged all parties to “seriously consider protecting the local labor market before we start sending people abroad.”
Last August, the Minister for Immigration and Workplace Safety and Relations, Michael Wood, announced that New Zealand would review its RSE scheme this year.
Workers in the RSE scheme are from Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
They work for up to seven months during each 11-month period in the forestry, horticulture and grape, fruit and vegetable and viticulture sectors.
“Non-RSEs” said they hired their workers in the Pacific through a cooperative.