How can we increase Pacific women’s participation in labor mobility?

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© Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade © Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Why don’t we see many Pacific women participating in the region’s labor mobility programs? Every year, thousands of workers from the Pacific and Timor-Leste travel to Australia and New Zealand to work in the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) and Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) schemes. While participation rates have varied between Pacific Island countries, over time, men have accounted for roughly 89 percent of RSE and 83 percent of PALM participants between 2012 and 2021. Our team wondered why.

Focusing on Kiribati, Tonga and Vanuatu, in late 2021 we conducted roughly 450 interviews with temporary migrant workers, their families and communities, and their employers. We identified a range of enablers and barriers to women’s participation. The good news is that with a few changes in the right places more Pacific women can be empowered to make the most of these opportunities.

Support from household members is vital.  

For many Pacific women, gender norms around domestic responsibilities and care work are major obstacles to seeking employment overseas.  Yet these obstacles can be overcome with family and community support. The women we interviewed strongly attributed their labor mobility participation to positive reactions and support from family and community members. One woman from Kiribati told us: 

“My husband and I decided [together], so he would stay with the kids, and I would go on the seasonal work.”

Travelling with family or community increases women’s ability to participate. For many women, concerns over family separation were a significant deterrent to seeking employment overseas. Travelling with family members helps ease such concerns and was highlighted as a significant enabler for women’s participation.   In addition, travelling as part of a community-based group alleviated concerns about loneliness.  As one Tongan worker told us:  

"Going in groups would help because they [workers] could help each other".

 Access to information about labor mobility is important. While both men and women have access to information about labor mobility schemes, men were more likely to access information via community forums while women were more likely to learn about the schemes informally through other women who had participated. Ensuring women are not reliant only on personal contacts and have access to relevant information about labor mobility may increase their ability to participate. 

Pre-departure costs influence women’s ability to participate. Covering costs such as passport applications, police and health checks can be expensive. Women commonly relied on loans or gifts from family members to help meet these costs.  Lowering upfront costs may make labor mobility more affordable and accessible for women.

Complex recruitment and pre-departure requirements disadvantage prospective female workers. Women sometimes had trouble navigating pre-departure requirements due to language and literacy challenges. As one woman from Vanuatu explained:

"It was difficult for me to fill in the documents because I only attended school until class 6.’"

Physical fitness tests were highlighted as a barrier to women’s participation. Women believed these tests were more suited to the physical work performed by men rather than the tasks generally assigned to women.  Another female ni-Vanuatu worker explained:

"Through a fitness test organized by our agent, out of a total of 50 plus women, only 4 of us made it through".    

Simplifying predeparture requirements and ensuring fitness (and other) tests are appropriate to employment types will increase women’s ability to participate.

Unsuitable accommodation is a major concern for workers. Pacific migrant workers considered mixed gender accommodation problematic. The men we interviewed felt it was culturally inappropriate to live alongside unaccompanied women, while women cited concerns ranging from men’s lack of tidiness to feeling unsafe. Employers were also concerned about the suitability of accommodation, and as a result, some avoided hiring women. Investing in appropriate, gender segregated accommodation will alleviate these issues and allay worker concerns.

Labor mobility schemes are demand-driven and employer preferences influence who is recruited. Some employers were reluctant to recruit female workers due to concerns over potential pregnancies and the lack of health insurance coverage.  However, employers who had recruited female workers spoke highly about their performance and often placed women in roles with greater responsibilities. An Australian PALM employer told us:

"We found that women have more attention to detail, so we want to use them more and even let them supervise."

Improving medical insurance provisions and promoting women’s achievements in labor mobility schemes could help address employer concerns.

© Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
© Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Looking ahead

Increasing Pacific women’s participation in temporary labor migration will require a multi-pronged approach to reduce the various economic and social barriers that prospective female workers face. Potential initiatives could include:

  • Encouraging family friendly approaches;

  • Awareness campaigns about the benefits of women’s participation;
  • Addressing issues around accommodation and workplace safety; and

  • Facilitating access to medical insurance and health services appropriate to women. 

Sending and receiving country governments both have roles to play. The money workers send home is used to finance essential consumption and investments in human capital.  Our respondents emphasized that women tend to be more focused on investing money in family and household wellbeing than men. If more women can be encouraged and supported to participate in labor mobility programs, the effort will be worth it.

© Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade


Ursula Casabonne

Operations Analyst, Poverty Reduction & Economic Management Network, World Bank

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