The Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme: a quick guide

13 September 2023

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Dr Susan Love
Social Policy

What is the PALM scheme?

The Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme enables eligible employers to hire workers from participating countries to fill specified roles. These roles incorporate unskilled, low-skilled and semi-skilled positions in rural and regional Australia, and agriculture sector jobs nationally. Approved employers can hire workers for seasonal positions for up to 9 months at a time or for longer-term roles for between 1 and 4 years, where not enough local workers are available.

Countries participate in the PALM scheme by entering into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Australia. Participating countries are Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) webpage on Pacific Labour Mobility states that the scheme is intended to fulfil a number of roles:

  • providing jobs and develops skills for workers
  • allowing them to support their families and communities at home
  • allowing employers to fill labour market gaps in regional Australia where it can be difficult to source a reliable workforce.

The webpage states ‘Pacific labour mobility also helps create strong links between people, businesses, and communities, fostering deeper connections between Australia and our neighbours’.

While the PALM scheme therefore has an economic role in addressing the workforce needs of target industries and employers, it is framed by international relations policy focused on the Pacific region and Timor-Leste.

The scheme is managed by DFAT and the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR). A service provider, the Pacific Labour Facility, is contracted to manage administration of aspects of the program.

When did the PALM scheme start?

The PALM scheme took effect on 4 April 2022. It was first announced by the Morrison Government on 14 September 2021, with further details released on 23 November 2021. However, it comes from a longer history of labour and mobility programs in the Pacific region.

The PALM scheme merged the previously existing Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) and Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS). The SWP was launched in 2012, following a pilot which began in 2008. The SWP was modelled on New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme, which began in 2007. The PLS began on 1 July 2018, following a pilot program in northern Australia. The short-term and long-term streams of the current PALM scheme reflect the 2 previous programs.

How do workers participate?

Workers must hold a passport from one of the participating countries. Each country’s government has a labour sending unit to help select workers and prepare them for working in Australia. Employers can liaise with the labour sending units to recruit workers. Applicants must be sponsored by an employer and be endorsed by the Australian Government. They can then apply for a visa in the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility stream of the Temporary Work (International Relations) visa (subclass 403). Workers must be aged 21 or over and meet criteria similar to other temporary visas, including having adequate health insurance and meeting health and character checks.

Under the seasonal short-term stream of the scheme, workers can work in Australia for up to 9 months in any 12-month period before returning to their home countries, and can return to Australia in subsequent years. Workers in the long-term stream can spend up to 4 years in Australia, and must then spend 6 months outside Australia before returning on a subsequent PALM visa. The visas permit multiple entry, meaning workers can leave Australia and return while their visas are in effect.

Workers cannot apply for other visas (other than a protection visa) while in Australia, except for short-term PALM visa holders transferring to a long-term PALM visa, or long-term PALM visa holders applying for a subsequent visa for a maximum of a 4-year stay.[1]

This means there is currently no pathway to permanent residence under the scheme. The Government is proposing to introduce a Pacific Engagement visa, a permanent visa open to citizens of selected Pacific Island countries through a pre-application ballot process. The ballot would be open to PALM visa holders in Australia. As at September 2023, the enabling legislation had not passed the Parliament.

PALM scheme workers are currently not permitted to bring family members with them. The Government has committed to amendments allowing workers in the long-term stream to bring family members, expected to start with a pilot program in late 2023 for 200 workers and their families, subject to supporting legislation passing. 

Under the previous employer arrangements, PALM workers could only work for their sponsoring employer in the industry they were recruited for. Following a pilot scheme, ‘portability’ arrangements in the new Approved Employer Deed of Agreement (introduced from 1 July 2023, see below) allow workers to transfer between employers. However, a worker cannot initiate a transfer – this is arranged between employers. The worker must give written consent and must not be disadvantaged by the move.

How do employers participate?

Employers based anywhere in Australia can employ PALM workers to undertake agricultural work. Work in other sectors must be located in regional and rural areas.

Before being permitted to recruit workers under the PALM scheme, employers, including labour hire companies, must become an Approved Employer. This involves completing an online application, signing an Approved Employer Deed of Agreement with DEWR (previously with DFAT), and becoming a temporary activities sponsor with the Department of Home Affairs in order to sponsor workers’ visas. There are also Employer Guidelines under the Deed to assist employers to meet their obligations. The process is intended to ensure employers are reputable and have the capacity to fulfil their obligations under the program.

The latest Deed and Guidelines were introduced on 1 July 2023 and set out requirements for employers, including:

  • recruitment processes and labour market testing
  • employment conditions, including providing minimum hours and rates of pay
  • providing arrival and departure briefings for workers
  • providing accommodation and transport
  • supporting worker welfare and wellbeing, including skills development opportunities and engagement in the local community
  • health and safety measures.

Employers are required to pay some of the worker’s upfront costs, such as visa charges and travel to Australia (unless a worker elects to pay themselves). They may deduct some costs, including travel costs over $300, from the worker’s wages once employment begins. Employers may seek Government reimbursement where costs cannot be recouped from seasonal workers through no fault of the employer.

What are the key debates around the PALM scheme?

The PALM scheme differs from Australia’s other migration initiatives in that it is aimed at low-skilled, rather than high-skilled, employment and in its focus on a particular global region.

As noted above, the scheme aims to fill multiple roles. Seasonal labour mobility has been described as a ‘triple win’: for workers, for Australia as the host country, and for Pacific Island countries. However, the PALM scheme is not without concerns and controversies. Some of the key areas of debate on the benefits and challenges of the scheme and its predecessors include:

Various amendments to the programs over their existence, including in the new Deed and Guidelines as noted above, have attempted to address some of these issues, but policy and implementation challenges remain in balancing all aspects of the scheme’s objectives.

What happened to the Agriculture visa?

The Morrison Government announced the Australian Agriculture visa on 16 June 2021 and subsequently amended the Migration Regulations 1994 to introduce the ‘Australian Agriculture Worker stream’ within the subclass 403 visa. The Agriculture visa was to be available for selected southeast Asian countries, and the operation of the visa and the relevant regulations were similar to those for the PALM scheme (and previously the SWP and PLS). However, the Albanese Government repealed the Agriculture visa stream on 1 October 2022, acting on a commitment to wind back the program and incorporate its key features into the PALM scheme. Only Vietnam signed an MOU with Australia under the Agriculture visa program, and while the Government has stated it will honour the arrangement, it has not yet been implemented. 

Where can I find more information?

Latest statistics on participation in the PALM scheme are available from the PALM website, updated approximately monthly. The latest update is as at 30 June 2023. At that time, there were 39,644 PALM scheme workers in Australia and 423 current Approved Employers. Long-term workers sent an estimated $168 million in remittances to their home countries between July 2018 and May 2023. Short-term workers send an average $1,061 a month in remittances.

The PALM scheme website provides a range of resources, including a ‘frequently asked questions’ fact sheet on the 2023–24 Budget announcements noting recent and forthcoming changes to the scheme. A more extensive ‘frequently asked questions’ page is also available on the PALM scheme website.

Information is also available on the DEWR website, in particular on the new employer Deed and Guidelines and transition arrangements.




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[1].    SWP stream visa holders were also eligible to apply for the subclass 408 COVID-19 pandemic event visa, but this is being progressively closed and will end on 1 February 2024.