The Costs of Caring: Gender Inequalities in the Pacific Labour Scheme
Pacific labour mobility schemes are an important source of labour for rural and regional Australia and have created new economic opportunities for migrant workers and their families in Pacific Island countries.
Recent policy shifts have sought to promote increased female participation in line with government commitments to gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. While some progress has been made in improving the gender balance of employment, evidence suggests the social costs of migration – both in Australia and at home – remain disproportionately borne by women and girls.
This essay examines the gendered implications of recent policy shifts that have positioned the Pacific at the heart of Australia’s temporary labour migration system. While efforts to promote women’s labour force participation within the expanding scope and volume of labour mobility are laudable, the visa parameters of the recently introduced Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) entail extended periods of transnational family separation that ingrain gender disparities in the performance of unpaid care work and associated constraints on wellbeing. These social costs sit outside typical cost-benefit analyses of migration outcomes, which rely on easily quantified income metrics, and have remained largely unaddressed as a source of gender inequality.
Increasing participation, extending separation
Australia’s relationship with the Pacific has become a major focus of foreign and development policy. Amid brewing geopolitical tension with China, temporary labour migration was made a the central plank of a Pacific Step-Up agenda intended to strengthen economic and political ties with the region. In 2018, against this backdrop, the longstanding Seasonal Worker Program (SWP) was joined with the introduction of the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS), with both schemes reframed as ‘mutually-beneficial’ development initiatives rather than labour supply arrangements.
The schemes share certain characteristics: both involve non-transferrable employer-sponsored visas that allow individual workers from nine Pacific Island countries (Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu) and Timor-Leste to perform ‘low-skilled’ and ‘semi-skilled’ jobs in rural and regional Australia, subject to labour market testing. They also have important differences. Foremost among these are the duration and sectoral scope of employment. Whereas the SWP entails seasonal work of up to nine months in agriculture and horticulture, the PLS is a multi-year scheme offering up to four years of employment across a broader range of industries and occupations. Initially, the PLS was curtailed to hospitality and tourism, aged care and non-seasonal agriculture. Limited demand from employers and low recruitment figures created pressure to broaden the scheme and sectoral restrictions were soon removed. By early 2020, the meat processing industry – which has long struggled to attract and retain workers at going wage rates – had emerged as the largest category of approved employers, accounting for approximately 65 per cent of workers employed in the scheme. COVID-19 temporarily halted PLS recruitment, but also exposed rural Australia’s systemic dependency on temporary migrant labour. In November 2020, exceptions to Australia’s strict border closure were made to allow for the resumption of Pacific labour mobility to address bourgeoning employer demand in lieu of other migrant arrivals. Following the ‘restart’, almost all PLS arrivals have been employed in meat processing or agriculture.
The preliminary focus on service sector occupations within the design of the PLS was, in large part, an effort to create jobs that align with the social construction of “women’s work” in response to a clear and persistent gender imbalance in SWP participation. Since its inception in 2012, men have typically accounted for 85 per cent or more of all SWP placements – reflecting a confluence of gender norms, safety concerns and employer preference. Seasonal agricultural work often involves physically demanding or dangerous labour that is often performed by men in the countries of origin; it frequently takes place in remote locations, involving accommodation that might be deemed culturally inappropriate for women; and, given limited demand in Australia, can create large labour pools in which recruitment is subject to complete employer discretion. While there is modest sub-national variation in SWP gender ratios, the overall picture is one of persistent male domination of seasonal employment opportunities. Furthermore, with the Australian Government following the World Bank’s lead in positioning migration and remittances as a vehicle for economic development in the Pacific, lopsided gender participation in the SWP is misaligned with aid and development policy promoting gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. The PLS therefore represented an ideal opportunity to rectify this situation, with the extended duration and scope of the scheme allowing workers to potentially earn and remit more income, for longer.
Considerable gender balance was achieved in the very early stages of the PLS: until the scheme was opened up to other industries, women made up roughly half of all participants. Even now, having reoriented toward male-dominated occupational categories, women’s participation in the PLS is greater than the SWP, hovering around 20 per cent as of September 2021. It is equally likely that – in light of Australia’s ongoing aged care crisis and bipartisan support for expanding Pacific labour mobility to compensate for the slow return of temporary migrant workers from other countries – there could be an imminent ‘refeminisation’ of the scheme. And yet, while increased female labour force participation in the PLS may well begin rebalancing gendered inequalities in income derived from Pacific labour mobility, policy constraints of the current visa arrangement are likely to reproduce gender inequalities in other aspects of women’s lives. The extended duration of the PLS not only entails a prolonged earning opportunity, but the protraction of a situation in which workers are denied rights that the rest of us would consider inalienable: namely the freedom to maintain and create family life. PLS workers are recruited by approved employers scattered across the vastness of Australia, often in remote communities far removed from the Pacific coast. Without provisions for family accompaniment or financial means to cover potentially exorbitant international travel costs, extended transnational family separation can be inevitable – with implications for maintaining personal relationships and care responsibilities.
These restrictions impact the wellbeing of men and women alike but the weight of available evidence indicates that these social costs are not borne equally.
Gendering the social costs of temporary labour migration
The PLS is not a unique visa arrangement. In facilitating multi-year employment in low-wage industries, without family accompaniment or the ability to change employers, it shares similar characteristics to temporary labour migration schemes that have proliferated across Asia since the 1960s. Participation in these temporary labour migration is seldom an individual pursuit, but rather a household livelihood strategy. When migration entails periods of extended separation, it not only reconfigures the way households organise work and income, but also the unpaid care activities and intimate relationships that sustain and reproduce family life. Though the PLS affords workers vastly greater regulatory oversight, legal protection and welfare support than equivalent migration channels between South Asia and the Persian Gulf, or between poorer and wealthier regions of Southeast Asia, we know that the care implications of extended transnational family separation disproportionately affect women and girls. There has been limited assessment of these social costs in the PLS, due in part to the newness of the scheme, but there are extensive insights from decades of men and women’s participation in comparable temporary labour migration schemes.
Time-use data shows that, globally, women perform significantly more unpaid care work than their male counterparts: particularly across Asia and the Pacific, where women perform care work for nearly five times longer each day. The gender norms underpinning this division of labour are often reaffirmed when married men migrate, with the care activities and parental responsibilities they hitherto performed taken on by their remaining spouse and/or other women in the family. When women migrate, there is typically more care work to reorganise within the remaining household and less support for role switching between spouses. The extent of male caring within migrant households, of course, varies greatly and attitudinal change toward gendered divisions of labour can be an outcome of migration in itself. Nonetheless, feminised temporary labour migration from South and Southeast Asia commonly involves some combination of: other women picking up the ‘reproductive slack’, the continuation of care responsibilities by women during migration, or the emergence of ‘care deficits’ where migrant households experience a net loss in care capacity. These outcomes reproduce gender inequality. The ‘substitute care’ of other women – often daughters or grandmothers previously receiving care – further ingrains a gendered division of labour in the performance of unpaid care. When women migrants continue caring from afar, they navigate a double burden of work and care that similarly preserves this disparity. Care deficits, meanwhile, make social costs intergenerational: remaining migrant children – particularly girls – can experience higher rates of health issues, sexual and physical abuse, educational disruptions and delinquency. When relationships break down and households fall apart, as they frequently do after years of separation, these social costs can become enduring impediments to wellbeing.
Though research on social costs is extremely limited, these themes appear to be playing out in the Pacific, too. While a World Bank study in Tonga and Vanuatu draws attention to the potential for women’s participation in the SWP to challenge traditional gender norms surrounding work and financial decision-making, the author of the underlying research observed that these changes were partial and quickly reversed post-migration. Rather, they claim that an existing over-reliance on women’s unpaid care work enables (and is reproduced through) male migration: “As more men continue to participate in seasonal work, this does not necessarily bring about changes to traditional gender roles, but rather, leads to the persistence of gender norms”. When men migrated, women were expected to take on additional unpaid labour associated with subsistence agriculture that their husbands previously performed; when women joined the SWP, it was reported that men typically received help from female relatives to meet household care needs. A similar study of New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme corroborates these findings and additionally identifies negative impacts on migrant children’s emotional development, care arrangements, and education. Both studies note that extramarital affairs and relationship breakdowns are commonly reported and may have particularly adverse social and financial outcomes for women.
The introduction of the four-year PLS scheme will likely exacerbate these issues. Extended periods of transnational family separation are set to compound existing tensions between women’s work and care roles, while placing strain on parental and personal relationships that are maintained only through distance communication and remittances. Longitudinal studies assessing the ongoing implications of these profound transformations to family life are sorely needed, though without change to the policy parameters of the PLS there is little to suggest outcomes will be positive or gender-neutral.
Reconciling work and care through policy
As a process of social transformation, migration can and does alter the normative frameworks that shape gendered divisions of labour – but attitudinal change can be patchy, transient, and slow to take hold. There is no compelling reason to leave the resolution of gender inequitable outcomes to chance, particularly in a context where migration is being promoted as a pathway to development and women’s economic empowerment. As feminist scholarship has long made clear, female labour force participation is, by itself, a necessary but insufficient condition for gender equality. If Australia is serious about making the PLS work for women, it needs to look beyond the narrow frame of participation and address the ‘missing link’ of unpaid care work.
While there is no quick policy fix for deep-seated gender norms shaping work and care roles across the Pacific, there is an opportunity to envision best practice principles to reconcile the work and care tensions produced by the temporary labour migration model. This necessarily begins with the recognition that social costs are economic; that work and care are two sides of the same coin. Human labour can only be put to productive ends insofar as it can be reproduced, daily and intergenerationally, and gender equality can only be achieved if balance is struck across all forms of work. Within the PLS, this means ensuring that participation in the scheme, whether by women or men, is not conditional on the ‘invisible’ labour of other women or immiserates care resources within migrant households. Numerous workplace and programmatic reforms could improve transnational family life in the PLS, but two policies offer a more substantial change in direction. Firstly, the visa parameters of the PLS need to be reworked to allow family accompaniment – consistent with all other temporary work visas – so that spouses can work in Australia and children can benefit from access to public education and health services. While accompaniment will not suit the needs and preferences of all migrant households, it is important that the decision is made by families and not policymakers. Secondly, and more ambitiously, Australia has an opportunity to redirect Pacific aid and development spending toward investments in care infrastructure and services that migrant communities can draw on in times of need. Recent research has shown that investing in care boosts economic growth and gender equality, allowing more women to participate in paid work as the responsibility for care provision is shifted from families to publicly funded services.
Of course, both policy options will incur significant government expenses. If the PLS is truly to be a gender-equitable development program and not simply a labour supply arrangement at Australia’s convenience, there should be little qualm over funding sustainable outcomes.
Matt Withers is a lecturer within the School of Sociology at the Australian National University.