Coalition’s $16m Pacific labour scheme recruits just 83 workers in five months | Australia news

The federal government’s new Pacific workers scheme is off to a sluggish start, having recruited only 83 workers as of November.

The Pacific labour facility, which was set up in July to connect workers with employers, has a $16m budget and is operated by the multinational business Palladium International.

So far, there is only one approved employer in New South Wales, which has recruited three workers, and three approved workplaces in Queensland, which employ 80 workers under the scheme, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in an answer to an outstanding Senate estimates question.

The scheme aims to plug low- and semi-skilled worker shortages in rural and regional Australia in industries such as tourism, hospitality, aged care, meat processing, non-seasonal agriculture, and the forestry and fishing sectors.

Initially there was a cap of 2,000 workers but the prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced before the AsiaPacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit in Papua New Guinea in November that the scheme would be unrestricted.

The Australian National University’s Development Policy Centre director, Stephen Howes, said the program might struggle initially but he was optimistic about its long-term benefits.

“It may not get above 2,000 this year but I think that’s definitely the longer-term ambition,” Howes said. “It does take time … It’s a totally new program and it had been restricted initially to Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu.”

The program has been expanded to cover workers from Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu with talks under way for Tonga and Papua New Guinea to join as well.

It runs alongside an existing seasonal worker program that focuses on agriculture and horticulture and covers nine Pacific nations and Timor-Leste. That program brought 6,166 workers to Australia in the 2017 financial year.

Over a six-month employment period, participating workers send an average of $2,200 home while in Australia and transfer $6,650 in savings home at the end of their stay, according to a World Bank report.

But the program has been marred by 12 deaths of workers in five years, convictions against labour hire companies for “serious exploitation” and alleged threats made against workers for complaining about their conditions.

The government has stepped up safeguards, offering a 24 hour-a-day hotline and extra pastoral care measures.

Australia set up the scheme as a “carrot” to encourage island countries to sign up to the Pacer Plus free-trade agreement but, after eight years of talks, the two biggest Pacific nations, Papua New Guinea and Fiji, remain out in the cold.

“It’s been de-linked. It’s all to do with China and the step-up in the Pacific,” Howes said. “I think they [the Australian government] decided just to cut their losses.”

The Turnbull and Morrison governments have engaged in a strategic pivot to the Pacific to counter Chinese influence.

Under the scheme, workers must commit to one year but can stay for a maximum of three.

Howes said the government might examine the issue of family separation down the track and reconsider a ban on workers bringing their dependants.

“That might be sensible for the seasonal worker program that is six to nine months, but, for three years, it’s a long time away from kids,” he said.

Howes said people would still be keen to come to work in Australia because of the economic benefit. Money sent home by Pacific island workers had huge scope to lift families out of extreme poverty, fund children’s education and improve the home country’s skill base, he said.

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