Pacific labour mobility

The Pacific labour mobility team undertakes research, and provides evidence-based policy advice, on the social and economic impacts of temporary labour migration programs between Pacific Island countries, and Australia and New Zealand.

Our program of work focuses on Australia’s Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) and Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS), and New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme, and considers these temporary migration programs alongside other migration pathways open to Pacific Islanders within the region and other temporary migration programs globally.

We share our work regularly on the Devpolicy Blog and via the monthly Labour Mobility and Migration News (see ‘Newsletters’ tab above on this page).

We are currently hosting a series of labour mobility webinars. See details of our upcoming events or listen to recordings from earlier webinars.

See the ‘Publications’ tab on this page to access and download Discussion Papers, Reports, and Submissions to Parliamentary inquiries.

Current areas of research include:

  • Social and economic impacts of temporary labour mobility schemes on migrant sending and receiving households and communities, and businesses and the private sector.

  • Social impacts & reintegration study of Timor-Leste SWP and PLS workers.

  • Skills analysis in Pacific Island countries.

  • Governance of Australia’s SWP.

  • Labour demand and supply to the horticulture sector in Australia and New Zealand.

  • Employment outcomes for Pacific Islander communities in Australia.

Our work is part of the Pacific Research Program - a consortium led by the ANU Department of Pacific Affairs, with the Development Policy Centre and the Lowy Institute. The Program is co-funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the consortium partners’ parent bodies.

Discussion papers

DP 70 What can Papua New Guinea do to lift its numbers in the seasonal worker programs of Australia and New Zealand?
Richard Curtain, September 2018
» view publication at SSRN
» read blog

DP 65 Backpackers v seasonal workers: learning from the contrasting temporary migration outcomes in Australian and New Zealand horticulture
Richard Curtain, Matthew Dornan, Stephen Howes and Henry Sherrell, November 2017
» view publication at SSRN
» read blog

DP 56 Migration and labour mobility from Kiribati
Carmen Voigt-Graf and Sophia Kagan, March 2017
» view publication at SSRN

DP 34 Skill development and regional mobility: lessons from the Australia-Pacific Technical College
Michael A. Clemens, Colum Graham and Stephen Howes, May 2014
» view publication at SSRN
» read blog

DP 17 Australia’s Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme: why has take-up been so low?
Danielle Hay and Stephen Howes, April 2012
» view publication at SSRN
» read blog

Journal articles

Bubble in, bubble out: lessons for the global recovery and future crises from COVID-19 and the Pacific
Ryan Edwards 2020, World Development
» download PDF


Pacific Islander communities in Australia & employment - Preliminary data analysis
Beth Orton, June 2020
» download PDF

A pressure release valve? Migration and climate change in Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu
Richard Curtain and Matthew Dornan, February 2019
» download PDF
» read blog

Analysing Pacific labour mobility: Devpolicy Blogs 2017-18
September 2018
» download PDF

Pacific Possible – Labour mobility: the ten billion dollar prize
Richard Curtain, Matthew Dornan, Jesse Doyle and Stephen Howes, July 2016

This report looks at the issue of Pacific labour mobility from both sides of the equation. It seeks to understand the perspectives and concerns of both sending and receiving countries, and it proposes reforms for both sets of countries. The report places particular emphasis on providing opportunities for low-skilled and medium-skilled migration. A broad range of reforms is proposed, but is particularly focused on providing labour mobility opportunities for those beyond the elite of sending countries to maximise the welfare gains of migration, and to reduce the risk of brain drain. The report forms part of the World Bank’s Pacific Possible series.

» download full report
» download four-page summary
» read blog

Australia’s Seasonal Worker Program: demand-side constraints and suggested reforms
Jesse Doyle, The World Bank; and Stephen Howes, Development Policy Centre, February 2015

This paper reports on the results of a comprehensive survey of employers and industry bodies across the horticulture sector examining employers’ views of the Seasonal Worker Program, which permits workers from eight Pacific Island countries and Timor-Leste to work in Australia for a period of fourteen weeks to six months.

» view report [PDF, 1.2MB]
» read blog


Submission to the Pacific Islands Forum 2050 Strategy
Stephen Howes and Ryan Edwards, November 2020

This submission builds a vision for Pacific labour mobility to 2050 to drive increased employment, stability, integration, and climate change adaptation. The submission details recommendations to: embed an emphasis on labour mobility in the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent; significantly increase the Pacific diaspora; give the Pacific greater access to existing migration pathways; and, focus Pacific aid on the provision of higher-quality education.

» view submission

Submission to the National Agricultural Workforce Strategy
Richard Curtain, July 2020

This submission provides information relevant to identifying current and expected demand and supply for the Australian harvest workforce. This includes advice on how to identify the supply of Australian residents for horticulture harvest work as well as the expected demand for this work.

» view submission

Submission to the Inquiry into the Working Holiday Maker program
Beth Orton and Stephen Howes, July 2020

This submission will focus on the Working Holiday Maker (WHM) visa as a major supply of seasonal labour to Australia’s horticulture sector. Through analysis of WHM visas granted, we show that there is an increasing shift in demand for the WHM visa from middle income partner countries and that the WHM visa is increasingly becoming an agricultural visa. With this comes increased risks of exploitation. We propose greater promotion and focus on the Seasonal Worker Programme to address the barriers for employer participation and to deliver a well-managed and responsive ‘seasonal worker’ scheme that also supports households and communities in the Pacific.

» view submission

Submission to the Select Committee on Temporary Migration
Holly Lawton and Ryan Edwards, July 2020

This submission relates to the Committee’s interests in the impact of wage theft, breaches of workplace rights and conditions on temporary migrants; policy responses to challenges posed by temporary migration; and whether permanent migration offers better long-term benefits for social cohesion. Pacific labour mobility is a key research area of the Development Policy Centre, and this submission draws on observations of Pacific labour mobility, particularly the Australian Government’s Pacific Labour Scheme and Seasonal Worker Programme.

» view submission

Submission to the Inquiry into Strengthening Australia’s relationships with countries in the Pacific region
Stephen Howes and Beth Orton, July 2020

This submission draws heavily on our submission to the inquiry on activating trade between Australian and Pacific countries (see below). Based on our analysis, we present five specific policy recommendations in relation to PACER Plus, Pacific labour mobility, the Pacific travel bubble, and aid.

» view submission

Submission to the Inquiry into activating trade and investment between Australia and Pacific island countries
Stephen Howes and Beth Orton, July 2020

This submission aims to demonstrate the unique nature of the Pacific economies, and of their interactions with the outside world, including Australia. It concludes that a conventional approach to promoting trade with the Pacific will fail, and that it is essential that the Committee put labour mobility at the front and centre of its considerations.

» view submission

Submission to the Inquiry into the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for Australia’s foreign affairs, defence and trade,
Ryan Edwards, June 2020

This submission relates to the Committee’s interests in the strategic implications of COVID-19 with particular respect to: implications for Australia’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade policy, particularly with respect to strategic alliances and regional security; the impact on human rights; and what policy and practical measures would be required to form an ongoing effective national framework to ensure the resilience required to underpin Australia’s economic and strategic objectives. We comment on these matters in relation to (a) Australia’s engagement and interests in the Pacific, and (b) aid and development policy.

» view submission

Submission to the Working Holiday Reform, Senate Standing Economics Committee – Legislative inquiry
Stephen Howes and Henry Sherrell, October 2016

The Senate Standing Economics Committee inquired to the legislation concerning the backpacker tax and associated measures. This submission, authored by Stephen Howes and Henry Sherrell, argues reforms cannot be looked at in isolation. Seven recommendations are made, recognising the Working Holiday program is primarily a low-skilled labour migration program, with reforms put forward to reduce the exploitation of backpackers, deliver fairness for seasonal workers, and foster additional Pacific labour mobility.

» view submission
» read blog

Submission to the Working Holiday Maker tax review
Stephen Howes, September 2016

In August 2016, the Deputy Prime Minister and Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister announced a review into the terms of taxation for individuals in Australia on working holiday maker visas (417 and 462 visas). This submission, authored by Stephen Howes and based on two horticultural employer surveys, argues that reforms related to the working holiday maker (backpacker) tax cannot be looked at in isolation from other issues pertaining to Australia’s horticultural sector. Any reforms should serve to level the playing field for backpackers and seasonal workers. Three key recommendations are made: to apply the same tax rate to both groups; to level market testing requirements for both groups; and to require registration of employers and labour hire companies who hire backpackers and seasonal workers. The outcomes of the review were announced on 27 September 2016.

» view submission [PDF, 360 KB]
» read blog

Submission to the Inquiry into the Seasonal Worker Program
Stephen Howes and Jesse Doyle, July 2015

In May 2015, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection requested that the Joint Standing Committee on Migration inquire into and report on the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP). This joint submission, authored by Stephen Howes (Devpolicy Director) and Jesse Doyle (World Bank), presents evidence primarily from the perspective of Australian horticultural employers and makes eight recommendations for expanding the SWP. The committee’s final report was tabled on 5 May 2016 and is available here.

» view submission [PDF, 694KB]
» view submission annexes [PDF, 1488KB]

Labour mobility and the Pacific webinar series

Governance of the Seasonal Worker Programme in Australia and sending countries
9 December 12–1pm
Professor Stephen Howes, Director, Development Policy Centre, ANU and Dr Richard Curtain, Research Fellow, Development Policy Centre, ANU
» registration

Abundance from abroad: migrant income and long-run economic development
11 November
Professor Dean Yang, Department of Economics and Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan
» watch the recording
» view presentation

Pacific labour mobility and remittances in times of COVID-19
21 October 2020
Dr Dung Doan,Economist, World Bank, Dr Kenia Parsons, Social Protection and Jobs Specialist, World Bank, Dr Kirstie Petrou, Social Protection and Jobs Consultant, World Bank, Dr Matthew Dornan, Senior Economist, World Bank
» watch the recording
» view presentation

Medical worker migration and origin-country human capital: evidence from U.S. visa policy
23 September 2020
Dr Caroline Theoharides, Assistant Professor of Economics, Amherst College
» watch the recording
» view presentation

Gender differences in social learning among Vanuatu cocoa growers
26 August 2020
Alexandra Peralta, Lecturer in Agricultural and Food Economics, Centre for Global Food and Resources, University of Adelaide
» watch the recording
» view presentation

COVID-19: economic costs and responses in the Pacific
19 August 2020
Stephen Howes, Director, Development Policy Centre, ANU, Jenny Gordon, Chief Economist, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Neelesh Gounder, Senior Lecturer in Economics, University of the South Pacific, and Maholopa Laveil, Lecturer in Economics, University of Papua New Guinea
» watch the recording
» listen to the podcast
» view presentation by Stephen Howes
» view presentation by Jenny Gordon
» view presentation by Maholopa Laveil

How to meet Australian demand for Pacific foreign vocational workers
12 August 2020
Michael Clemens, Director of Migration, Displacement, and Humanitarian Policy and Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development, and Satish Chand, Non-Resident Fellow, Center for Global Development; Professor of Finance, School of Business, University of New South Wales; Adjunct Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU
» watch the recording
» listen to the podcast
» view presentation by Satish Chand

Is mobile money changing rural Africa? Evidence from a field experiment
15 July 2020
Cátia Batista, Associate Professor of Economics, Nova School of Business and Economics
» watch the recording
» view presentation

Migration and household finances: how a different framing can improve thinking about migration
10 June 2020
Timothy N. Ogden, Managing Director, Financial Access Initiative
» view presentation
» listen to the podcast

Migrant health workers are on the COVID-19 frontline: we need more of them
28 April 2020
Helen Dempster, Assistant Director and Senior Associate for Policy Outreach for the Migration, Displacement, and Humanitarian Policy Program, Center for Global Development, and Rebekah Smith, Non-Resident Fellow, Center for Global Development; Founder and Interim Director, Labor Mobility Partnerships (LaMP)
» view presentation
» watch the recording

Updated:  30 November 2020/Responsible Officer:  Devpolicy Admin/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team