Sangeeta Maharaj’s Eden bistro has been a well-known fixture in Fiji’s restaurant scene for locals and tourists for more than a decade.
- Hospitality businesses in the Pacific are suffering staff shortages due to an exodus to Australia
- Staff are leaving under the Pacific mobility scheme which was expanded to hospitality to address Australia’s worker shortages
- There are calls for more support and local training to help local businesses keep up
With a high standard of service and reputation to uphold, Ms Maharaj works hard to train her staff.
Some have been with her nearly as long as the restaurant has been open.
But recently, there has been an “exodus” of workers, which has left her business and others in the area with major staff shortages from one day to the next.
Over the past few months, she has lost four chefs and the majority of her wait staff.
She said most of them have left to work in Australia.
“This scheme of taking workers from here to Australia, it’s so sudden … it’s like an exodus,” Ms Maharaj told the ABC’s Pacific Beat program.
“We’ve had no front of house staff since a month ago. I got resignations on a Thursday, and they stopped coming from Saturday.”
In April, the Australian government expanded the Pacific Australian Labor Mobility Scheme (PALM) to include hospitality, tourism, and aged care in a bid to address critical skills shortages.
The move came as tourism in Fiji was just gaining momentum after reopening from COVID-19 border closures.
On his visit to Fiji last month, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese spruiked the scheme, telling reporters it was “good for Australia” to help fill workforce gaps, but also “good for our Pacific island neighbours”, especially as it allows more women to participate in the scheme.
However, the move hasn’t been so positive for local businesses with workers abandoning their jobs during peak season.
‘A level that we’ve never seen before’
Shakil Zoro Bhamji used to employ 95 staff across his cafe chain Coffee Hub.
But he has lost around 20 workers this year, with many leaving on short notice as soon as their Australian visas were approved.
“They will literally just abandon the workplace and leave. So that has been really, really frustrating, unfortunately,” Mr Bhamji said.
He said they are “standing on one leg”, caught in a constant loop of hiring new staff only to lose them again.
“That’s just how the turnover is. They get approached by the hotels, because the hotels continuously lose staff for this work scheme,” Mr Bhamji said.
His cafes are now operating on reduced hours with Mr Bhamji recruiting students to fill gaps, regardless of their abilities.
“We are basically living from day to day with recruitment, and now most of my staff have zero experience,” he said.
“I feel like now we live in a world where our customers are more informed than our staff.”
Fantasha Lockington, the CEO of the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association, said they have always had a cyclical movement of workers going to Australia and New Zealand but it has “simply ramped up”.
“It’s now nine months on [since Fiji reopened] and we’re experiencing a very positive high season, but one that also coincides with both Australia and New Zealand opening up fully and also requiring workers,” she said.
“We understand it’s going to happen, it’s just happened at a level that we’ve never seen before.”
Tourism Fiji has been training up locals to fill the gaps, but Ms Lockington wants the Australian government to also consider Pacific businesses’ needs.
“What we’d like to see is a little bit more discussion about how they can support a bit more training, rather than simply making it easier for them to go across,” she said.
A spokesperson from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) said by supporting Pacific workers to develop new skills or upskill it provides a “skills dividend to Pacific countries”.
They added that it was up to Pacific countries to regulate how they handle their mobility flows.
“PALM scheme partner countries have their own labor mobility policies and control who can register in their work-ready pool,” the spokesperson said.
“The Australian government respects partner country decisions on where they focus their efforts on labor mobility.”
A challenge across the region
It is not just businesses in Fiji that are being affected.
Across the region, staff shortages are the main challenge for the tourism industry as workers seek more lucrative opportunities in Australia and New Zealand.
At the end of last month, there were close to 26,600 PALM workers in Australia, according to a Department of Employment and Workplace Relations spokesperson.
Between May and July, around 4,792 workers arrived under the scheme.
A pool of more than 50,000 have been pre-screened and are awaiting job offers.
Under the scheme, these jobs can be filled for up to nine months, but longer-term roles for between one and four years can also be considered.
Samoa predicted that staff shortages would be an issue when it reopened to tourists this month.
Tutuila Farao, a spokesperson from the Samoa Tourism Authority, said they had been training staff during COVID to prepare.
But as more workers head overseas they are “back to basics”, having to find students to train from scratch, he said.
When Vanuatu opened to tourists in July, Paul Pilo from the country’s tourism office voiced the same concerns.
Ni-Vanuatu make up the largest pool of seasonal workers in Australia.
PALM workers a boost for Australian resorts
Recently, 24 workers from Vanuatu arrived in the Northern Territory to take up work at the remote Kings Canyon Resort.
Matt Lang, the CEO of G’Day Group which runs the resort, said the Pacific workers have been crucial.
“Without the PALM workers we couldn’t support the increased demand and capacity at Kings Canyon,” he said.
He sees the scheme as a “win-win” for Australia and the Pacific as workers return home with skills that will benefit local business.
“They get a great wage and we give them quality training and an experience that enables them to further their careers and improve the job prospects,” Mr Lang said.
“These are also transferable skills that they can take back home.”
Mayline Vinic decided to come to Australia and work at Discovery Kings Canyon for the experience and to support her family.
“It was important to me to help my family back home,” she said.
The Australian government has said PALM workers on average can send around $6,000 a year back to their country.
So far, Ms Vinic is enjoying her time at the resort and plans to come back next year.
But she also hopes to put her new skills to use back in Vanuatu.
“It helps to have the training we’ve received here,” she said.
“We can use the skills we’ve learned to train other Ni-Vans back home.”