Why the Catholic Archbishop of Fiji is wrong to condemn seasonal work

Archbishop Peter Loy Chong (Archdiocese of Suva-Facebook)
Archbishop Peter Loy Chong (Archdiocese of Suva/Facebook)

In a recent Fiji Times opinion piece ‘The dark side of seasonal work’ (16 September 2023), the Catholic Archbishop of Fiji, Peter Loy Chong, made a number of general, emotive and false claims about seasonal workers. The claims, though false, are loaded with deep historical meaning for Fijians, in particular that workers are being treated as “slaves” and “forced labour” in Australia.

Statements made in the article about the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme are completely false. These include the claims that “PALM is a form of human trafficking and forced labour”, that “Labour agencies milk their money from the hard labour of seasonal workers” and that “… very little attention is given to the welfare and the rights of the seasonal workers”.

In fact, PALM has a strong focus on the welfare of the workers. The scheme is highly regulated and closely monitored by a range of agencies and organisations. These include Australian government agencies, liaison officers of the sending countries, Australian unions, NGOs and local communities.

When a complaint is put forward by a Fijian worker in Australia, before automatically considering this as evidence against PALM, the question must be asked whether the worker involved is in the PALM scheme. Many Fijian PALM workers have absconded. Between January 2020 and June 2023, 1,654 Fijians applied for asylum. Many of these are PALM workers, now working with a protection bridging visa, often with unrestricted work rights, but without any of the PALM protections. Also, some Fijians enter Australia on a tourist visa and then work illegally. In the year to the end of June 2023, 19,751 visitor visas were granted to Fijian citizens.

The Archbishop’s article makes the claim that seasonal workers are required to surrender their passports. I have heard of this practice once during the closure of borders, involving a group of former Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) workers. It was carried out by illegal labour contractors who enticed seasonal workers to abscond and who then wanted to control and exploit them.

Not all PALM workers are well treated, but most are, which is why most seasonal workers decide to return each season. Analysis of return worker rates (not specific to Fiji) shows that first-time workers have a 60% probability of returning a second time and second-time workers have a 70% probability of returning a third time. According to the Australian government in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry, overall, up to three out of four SWP workers (74%) return the next year.

The level of seasonal worker satisfaction is high, as shown by a 2021 World Bank survey based on a representative sample of workers:

When asked how satisfied they were with the schemes on a scale of 1, “not satisfied at all”, to 10, “extremely satisfied”, the average score was 8.0 among PLS [Pacific Labour Scheme] workers, 7.8 among Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) workers, and 8.2 among RSE [Recognised Seasonal Employers] workers. This high level of satisfaction was similar to findings from an earlier World Bank survey of SWP workers, with no clear pattern of changes.

The Archbishop cites in his article a Vatican document ‘Pastoral Orientations on Human Trafficking’. The main thrust of this guidance to Catholics is that migration is a high-risk strategy that should be avoided at all costs. It fails to acknowledge that migration for work overseas through regulated pathways is an important strategy for many from poor countries to escape poverty.

This highly paternalistic mindset is also evident in the Archbishop’s article. Workers are seen as powerless to respond to their situation. But workers are not cattle, being directed by a whip to do this or that – they are able to assess their working conditions and decide whether to return to work in Australia or not.

Migration for workers without formally recognised skills via a regulated program such as PALM does involve a trade-off in terms of their rights compared with Australian workers. Being tied to one employer as a condition of employment is not in itself forced labour, as the worker has freely accepted this requirement. However, it may make the worker vulnerable to exploitation. That is why so much regulation has been put in place to monitor PALM employers and workers. Employers have to be pre-approved, and can lose their PALM licence at any time. Accommodation has to be pre-approved. All incidents involving PALM workers have to be reported to the government agency administering the program. Unions and community groups have access to PALM workers. And so on.

Managing the labour mobility of workers without recognised skills is a complex business. Using highly emotive words such as “slavery” and “forced labour” is not helpful to the workers involved, those providing the jobs, or to officials managing compliance requirements. The Catholic Church in Australia and Fiji should be involved with PALM, and as a critic when needed, but not on the basis of unsubstantiated claims.

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Richard Curtain

Richard Curtain is a research associate, and recent former research fellow, with the Development Policy Centre. He is an expert on Pacific labour markets and migration.


  • Thank you to all who have responded to my blog. Other comments have picked up points I would have made in response to the critical feedback. Suzanne asked why can’t workers be afforded the same rights and respect as the free flow globally of money and goods. Kingtau Mambon in response noted that ‘Moving Humans (Labour) unlike other material things isn’t just a matter of economics. Other dimensions such as social, cultural and political dimensions should be taken into consideration. Its complex’.
    Bal Kama doubted that the PALM scheme was highly regulated based on the cases he has dealt with. Randall Prior, who has extensive experience as an independent monitor of worker welfare, points to the revised Deed of Agreement and Guidelines that approved employers must sign onto before they can employ PALM workers. What Randall did not mention was the large number of staff in the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations who are monitoring closely how well approved employers are complying with the complex set of requirements.
    If people are concerned about workers’ welfare and working conditions in agriculture, they should turn their action to those working in rural and remote areas who are on the minimally regulated Working Holiday Maker visas. These workers, often with limited English, are much more vulnerable. They are left on their own to find their own accommodation. They also have to negotiate with employers on the basis of limited information about their legally required working conditions and entitlements.

  • It would be helpful if those who make claims and assertions about PALM workers base them on available knowledge.
    Of relevance to the discussion at hand is the actual content of the very recently adopted and publicly available Deeds & Guidelines for the PALM Scheme, with which all Approved Employers must comply. Stakeholders in the Scheme will acknowledge that the level of support and protection for PALM workers has been significantly enhanced in very newly adopted Deeds & Guidelines. A perusal of these documents will indicate that the plea of the partner nations – about prioritising care and support for their own people – is being heard and acted upon. Increasingly, it is the Approved Employers who are under increasing pressure to perform their task in ways that are not required from any Employer outside the program.

    By far the biggest dangers for PALM workers occur when, for a variety of reasons (including false promises of earning more money more quickly, of being able to stay longer than the PALM contracts allow for, or even of becoming permanent residents), they ‘disengage’ from the program. (I avoid the common term ‘abscond’ because it contains a value judgement which suggests quite wrongly in most cases, that the workers are at fault.) In disengaging, workers immediately lose the structured protections of the program, and thus become far more vulnerable to exploitation. The experiences of this cohort of disengaged workers are often misunderstood to be the experiences of engaged PALM workers. Over three years of working ‘on the ground’, supporting worker groups across Victoria, distress calls for help are far more likely to originate from disengaged workers who are without income, have lost their promised work, have no access to accommodation, or have expired visas.
    If there has been a fault in the program, it is the failure to act more quickly to assist disengaged workers in a way that prevents such distressing outcomes which impact severely not only on the workers, but on their families and their home communities.
    Of course, no-one would claim that the program is anywhere near perfect; all stakeholders are conscious of the ongoing need for further improvements in order to maximise the benefits and limit the damages. By working in the spirit of partership, this evolution can continue.
    …Randall Prior

  • The defence of the PALM offered by the author seems to hinge on two important assertions:

    (1)”The scheme is highly regulated and closely monitored by a range of agencies and organisations.” (2) “But workers are not cattle, being directed by a whip to do this or that – they are able to assess their working conditions and decide whether to return to work in Australia or not.” The first assertion of being “highly regulated and closely monitored” can be contested. “Regulated, yes, but ”highly” is doubtful, at least from the cases I’ve dealt with and not the experience of all.

    The condition for workers to be assigned to an employer for the duration of their work visa is good for stability but also raises issues of possible exploitation. Is there regular independent inspection of the work site and arrangements? How regular are the inspection? Are there whistleblower’s rights for the workers, including automatic right of workers to be moved to another employer if they raises complaints? What is the complaints process and are workers informed of it? Can’t rely on dealing with Unions.

    It is not sufficient and workers pay fees from their salary, something PALM scheme does not cover (unless that has changed). The workers feel trapped – they can’t complain. No independent inspector on site and no guarantee for protection including working rights should they complain against their employer or against their recruitment agencies, with genuine fear that their prospect for returning is slim to none if they complain. What has PALM done to address that? So, the assertion of the industry being “highly regulated and closely monitored” should be questionable.

    Assertion 2:

    2) “But workers are not cattle, being directed by a whip to do this or that – they are able to assess their working conditions and decide whether to return to work in Australia or not.” This is backed by another often ‘be grateful’ line of “It fails to acknowledge that migration for work overseas through regulated pathways is an important strategy for many from poor countries to escape poverty.”

    It is a common power dynamic often advance by the employers and recruitment agencies, wanting the workers to be grateful of the opportunity. A very problematic approach. What this assertion implies, amongst others, is that the measurement of satisfaction seems to be by an employee’s willingness to return to Australia for work or not.

    That can never be a valid assessment. That thinking clearly puts the responsibility back to the employees which should never happen. There are many reasons why a worker would like to return, not necessarily on the basis that they are satisfied with the working arrangement and conditions. An escape from their village or towns/their Island countries and its obligations would be among the most pressing. Or “to escape poverty” as the author puts it, yet, they could very much remained in a state of poverty when in Australia due to their conditions they are subjected to. Overall, the tenor of the article in response to the Archbishop in Fiji should also suffer some criticism.

    Insights from both and the discussions it raises should help to better the PALM system which at this stage is far from being “highly regulated and closely monitored.”

    • Hi Kingtau, that in comparison to the regulation of migration and the movement of people, international finance and international trade are relatively unhindered. if as market fundamentalists argue the market delivers the best outcomes for all in the long run, why does the argument not apply to people? It is argued that Pacific work schemes protect Pacific peoples – really?

      • Thanks Suzanne, money and goods can move easily and faster but “not freely”. There is nothing free in this world.

        Moving Humans(Labour) unlike other material things isn’t just a matter of economics. Other dimensions such as social, cultural and political dimensions should be taken into consideration. Its complex.

        Pacific work schemes might not be perfect at this stage but it has potential to benefit Pacific Island countries and can be improve along the way. Markets works well when interests of both supply side and demand side are reconciled. However, strong statements such as that of our esteemed Bishop can be a source of information asymmetry (feeding wrong information to either side of the market) and could potentially lead to market not working well in the long run. Leaders in respected offices should have proper matured dialogue with appropriate stakeholders in the labour mobility space in addressing inconsistencies rather than randomly appealing to the mass; it wont do us any good.

  • Religion can either lock people in poverty or bring them out of poverty: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-019-0215-z

    Those given the respect in that space should deal with this power responsibly. With due respect to our Arch Bishop, one should imagine livelihoods of these thousand Fijians participating in labour mobility schemes with and without the schemes.

  • I would argue it is time to see the closely regulated Pacific Labour Mobility Scheme for what it is – a means to deliver workers at a price that favours employers. In a global context in which money and goods flow freely, when will all workers be afforded the same rights and respect?

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