When our team set out to measure how temporary migrant workers from the Pacific had coped with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the survey data showed some surprising results about the resilience and the sacrifices of migrant workers. Despite significant disruption to employment, earnings losses, and health impacts, remittances from Pacific migrant workers seem to have weathered the storm of the pandemic. This is welcome news because this lifeline will remain essential for the region for some time to come.
Labor mobility in the Pacific region
With limited formal employment opportunities at home, workers throughout the Pacific are increasingly finding jobs overseas. Every year, thousands of low and semi-skilled Pacific workers migrate for temporary work under the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme in Australia – which consists of two programs, the Seasonal Worker Programme (providing seasonal low-skilled employment for up to nine months per year), and the Pacific Labour Scheme (semi-skilled jobs for between one and three years) – as well as the Recognized Seasonal Employers scheme in New Zealand. They form part of a broader Pacific workforce that resides overseas and sends money home, supporting the livelihood of a significant share of the population.
In fact, seven of the top 10 remittance receiving countries in the world (by share of GDP) are in the Pacific. Tonga tops the list, with remittance inflows equivalent to about 38 percent of GDP in 2020; about four in five Tongan households receive remittances from overseas.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly disrupted these critical sources of employment and income. At the wake of the pandemic, border closures left thousands of seasonal workers stranded in Australia and New Zealand , facing long separations from family and periods of uncertainty around their visas and employment. And conversely, many prospective migrant workers had their trips cancelled, losing potential income, as well as the money that they had invested to prepare for the trip.