The Vanuatu government has launched an inquiry into the country’s labour mobility programmes, including the seasonal worker programme in Australia, citing concerns around safety.

The inquiry comes in the wake of testimony from Vanuatu seasonal workers in Australia to a parliamentary hearing earlier this month, in which they alleged they had experienced bullying, exploitative working conditions, poor housing arrangements and lack of support services while under the scheme.

Australia’s Pacific labour mobility initiatives – the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) and Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) – support Pacific and Timorese workers to take up jobs in rural and regional Australia, particularly in the agricultural sector.

There are roughly 4,500 Vanuatu workers in Australia under the scheme based on the 2019 and 2020 numbers by the Vanuatu government.

One Vanuatu citizen said that while working on the scheme he had received just $100 (US$72) a week and had $30 (US$21) a week deducted from that amount, with no explanation of what the deductions were for, which led to the Australian senator Matt Canavan calling the scheme “tantamount to slavery”.

Others, such as Stephen Howes, the director of the Development Policy Centre and a professor of economics at the Crawford School of Public Policy, have defended the scheme, saying that it provides huge economic benefit to individuals and communities in the Pacific, and that there are safeguards in place to protect workers from abuse, and that research shows there is less exploitation for workers in the Seasonal Worker Programme than for backpackers working in agricultural jobs under another scheme.

After the testimony to the Australian Senate, Vanuatu’s opposition leader, Ralph Regenvanu, tweeted he had “urged our government to seek to revise the agreements between the Vanuatu and Australian governments” concerning the schemes. “Vanuatu Government has its duty to safeguard its citizens.”

“There have been issues regarding the safety of our workers, and this is one of the issues that will be addressed in the inquiry,” said Jason Daniels, the secretary to the Vanuatu parliament’s committee on economics and foreign policy.

Daniels said that the inquiry was not set up because of the testimony in Australian parliament about the programme, but would consider that testimony, along with other submissions made to the committee.

“One of the challenges that the committee is looking into is the cost of applying for the programme… We also want to understand the benefits to Australia and New Zealand compared to benefits to Vanuatu and how we can address this.”

In addition to the call for submissions, the parliamentary committee will also visit the outer islands of Vanuatu to speak to families and individuals impacted by the scheme.

Regenvanu said that many of the issues arising from the scheme could have been addressed if the 2019 Labour Mobility Policy for Vanuatu was implemented by the government.

“The policy addressed issues dealing with superannuation …, better worker preparedness, enhancing MOU to ensure more protection for workers in Australia and New Zealand, social cohesion, family life in Vanuatu, upskilling of workforce and also better integration back into Vanuatu,” said Regenvanu, who introduced the policy as foreign minister.

Pacific labour mobility researcher Tupai Fotuosamoa Jackson said reviewing the programme and examining its impact on society was important, but that participants in the programmes could be afraid to participate honestly in the review, for fear of losing their job.

“For the worker, there is an obligation to remain on the programme and there is a fear that your opportunity to continue will be impacted.”

Jackson, who has published research into the impact of the seasonal scheme on family life in the Pacific, said that each government needs to consider what their threshold is.

“How many people will they permit to be part of the programme and what is the impact of their absence to those left behind?” said Jackson.