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Beyond Economic Development: Why gender needs to be Considered in Pacific Economic Development

Hannah Bradshaw | Pacific Fellow


By 2050, almost half of the world’s economic output is expected to come from the Pacific region. This presents unparalleled opportunities for Australia to increase its economy and security as the Pacific region expands its own economic and strategic power. One such way the Pacific and Australia partner to harness the economic growth of the region is through the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Schemes (PALMS) and the Seasonal Worker Program (SWP). PALMS and SWP are advertised as ‘win-wins’ for both Australia and the sending Pacific country – allowing labour shortages to be filled in Australia as well as employment opportunities and the ability to upskill to be provided to Pacific Islanders. While the economic benefits of such schemes have been well documented, the social costs of the schemes have been less so. The problematic nature of this becomes apparent when assessing the imbalances in the gendered division of labour in the Pacific, caused by the absence of men due to migration. Through the application of a gender lens to PALMS and SWP, the cons of focusing solely on economic development and ignoring normative social/gender dynamics becomes known. If Australia continues to neglect the gender implications of SWP/PALMS, their overall success will remain limited.


Since the introduction of the Seasonal Worker Program (SWP), 85% of all participants have been male. This is, in part, attributable to the male-centric view on Pacific discourse surrounding migration. While this does differ per country within the Pacific, there is a predominant discourse that it is the man’s role in the family to be the breadwinner. As noted by previous research into the SWP/PALMS schemes, 95% of SWP workers originating from Tonga believe that seasonal work in Australia is better suited to men than women. The PALMS, which expanded the fields for which seasonal work could be undertaken, created opportunities within the service and caring industries. Despite this aligning towards the typical Western/Pacific construct of ‘women’s work’ – as of September 2021 only 20% of PALMS workers were female.


Understanding why this is requires looking beyond the income flow and economic benefits of the schemes. While workers in both SWP/PALMS benefit economically, participation in the schemes often result in a care gap within migrant worker’s families and communities left behind. Economist, Naila Kabeer, noted in her book, Gender Mainstreaming in Poverty Eradication and the Millennium Development Goals, that when women take on a ‘housewife’ role, it is frequently considered a non-economic activity. As such, there is a requirement to reconcile the unpaid contributions made by women who are left behind, the gendered power relations that determine how this occurs, and the overall impact of these factors on women’s access to SWP/PALMS programs.


Across multiple Pacific nations, there is a common trend of women’s work in the home substantially increasing when their husbands participate in SWP/PALMS. As one woman in a Tongan focus group noted; ‘We see many women doing the jobs of the men, for example ringing the church bells for several months of the year because the able-bodied men are away’. A man in Vanuatu shared similar sentiments; ‘Before joining the SWP, men are mostly farmers and gardeners, but when they are away, the women have more hours of work because they now have to clean the kava garden, clear the garden for copra, and take care of children….the traditional ways of doing things are changing’. This serves to display the increased workload and corresponding hardship that SWP/PALMS has on women who are left behind.


The inverse – men staying home and women undertaking SWP/PALMS – is not positively received by many communities within the Pacific, resulting in further negative social implications. Focus groups revealed that women who undertook SWP/PALMS were seen to be ‘damaging’ to the traditional way of family life. Men were also overwhelmingly less likely to adopt caretaker roles in the home, and instead were found to redistribute this work to other women or create ‘care deficits’. Care deficits occur when households experience a net decline in care capacity, often resulting in children having to take on the typical ‘parent’ role. Care deficits reproduce gender inequality and often make the social costs intergenerational. Hence, while Australia claims that PALMS/SWP aim to challenge traditional gender norms through enabling women’s participation in the workforce, this has not become the reality. Instead, what can be practically observed is an over-reliance on women’s work in the home, which is both reproduced and enabled by men’s participation in PALMS/SWP.


Ultimately, there is no magic policy solution to the deeply engrained gender norms which are present across the Pacific region. What Australia does have, however, is the ability to employ best practice, working to recognise and incorporate the gender context within the Pacific into its economic development policy. This begins with the acknowledgement that social costs and economic costs work in tandem. The principles of ‘work’ and ‘care’ are unable to be divorced. At present, it is clear that contemporary seasonal work programs within the Pacific are not gender neutral – perhaps it is this acknowledgement by the Australian Government, which would provide the best place to start.


Hannah Bradshaw is the Pacific Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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