Under the Pacific Labor Scheme (PLS), Pacific and Timor-Leste nationals can work in Australia for up to four years in a range of occupations in regional areas. The PLS started in 2018, so the first workers are now coming in at the four-year mark. At that time, they will have to go home.
It’s hardly ideal. Promoting circular migration alone does nothing to strengthen the Pacific diaspora in Australia. An upper limit imposed on how long PLS workers can be in Australia reduces the incentives for workers to learn skills and take on additional responsibilities while in Australia.
Once their four-year period is over, PLS workers who wish can, if they are able to find a new job or reclaim their old one, return to Australia after nine months at home. However, this is also not ideal given the uncertainties involved; especially for the many PLS workers who are married and have children since, as long as they are in the PLS, they will be separated from their families.
What is really needed is a pathway to tenure, not for all workers, but at least for those who are interested and can find an employer to sponsor them. And now it looks like there might be one. It is specific to only one group of PLS workers – meat workers – but it is a very large group. Most PLS workers are employed in slaughterhouses – at last count this was two-thirds of the 6,000+ PLS workers currently in Australia.
The TSS (Temporary Skill Shortage) visa is Australia’s main visa to deal with skills shortages. The meat industry has industry-specific access to the TSS through the Meat Industry Labor Agreement (MILA). If PLS workers can obtain the TSS visa through MILA, they can stay in Australia for another four years without any requirement to leave the country first. They can also bring their family with them (and their partner will have unlimited working rights). Also, after three years, they can switch to an Employer Nomination Program permanent resident visa (186).
Of course, none of this can happen without employer sponsorship. But as of February 15, 2022, 45 companies have a MILA with the Ministry of the Interior. This reflects the fact that the meat industry relies heavily on migrant labour, due to the nature of the work and the regional location of most of its processing plants. This is why industry is allowed to participate in the TSS through MILA, although normally the TSS is reserved for much higher skilled and better paid professions.
Additionally, companies operating meat processing plants are now facing significant labor shortages due to COVID-19 and, more broadly, the difficulty of finding meat workers locally. able to meet English language requirements.
Recent changes to MILA mean that eligibility for TSS now only requires one year of relevant work experience in Australia and an independent assessment of a worker as having skills up to a Certificate III qualification. These requirements should be easy enough for many experienced PLS workers to meet, provided the employer is interested in them (since only employers can arrange the necessary skills assessments).
Labor hire operators cannot participate in MILA, but they are the ones who hire and employ most PLS meat workers. Processing plant owners will therefore have to mobilize to hire PLS workers as employees, at least when they obtain a TSS visa. However, since they already employ other workers under MILA, this should not be a problem.
There are TSS English language requirements. Since PLS workers will already be in Australia for, say, three years before taking their English test, they should be able to pass. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has also made funds available that can be used for English language training and/or skills assessments.
This is a great opportunity. We know that to date the meat processing industry has recruited for the TSS largely from non-English speaking countries. It has been very difficult for them to find workers who have both slaughterhouse experience and the required level of English. In the past, English speakers have been issued TSS visas based on false claims of slaughterhouse experience. By recruiting PLS workers for the transition to TSS instead, employers (and the Australian government) can be sure that the workers they grant TSS visas to have both genuine experience (in effect, experience gained in Australia) and good English.
We hope that employers, workers and facilitators of PLS, such as the Pacific Labor Facility, will seize this exciting new opportunity to provide high quality, long-term labor for Australia’s labor processing sector. meat. It is also an opportunity to avoid indefinite family separations, provide continued access to well-paying jobs for Pacific workers, and expand the Pacific diaspora in Australia.
Of course, employers will only train, organize skills assessment and sponsor workers they want to keep. In the short term, what we need is a few employers now to select a few workers they want to keep, ensure they acquire the required technical and language skills, and prove that this transition from PLS to TSS can work . In the longer term, a national skills pool could be developed, so that interested and qualified PLS workers can apply to other meat processing employers for TSS sponsorship. This could be transformative, both for the sector and for the PLS.
This PLS-TSS pathway is one of many that emerged from a DFAT-sponsored multi-stakeholder task force in the last quarter of last year (and one in which we participated) to examine how to increase Pacific participation. at TSS. The full report is now available on the DFAT website.
Read ‘Pacific Education, Skills and Labor Mobility: New Measures Increasing Pacific Access to the Australian TSS Visa – Policy Paper‘. The PLS is now part of the PALM program (Pacific Australia Labor Mobility).
This research was supported by the Pacific Research Program with funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The views represent those of the authors only.