There are growing concerns by Pacific Island nations involved with the Government’s Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme that a skills gap shortage is being created in their healthcare systems as highly qualified nurses move to Australia for work.
The PALM scheme allows eligible businesses to recruit workers from 10 select countries, including Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Samoa, to fill workforce gaps in specific industries. The Government expanded the scheme in July to include the aged care sector, with workers eligible for contracts between 1 – 4 years.
At the time, ANMF Federal Secretary Annie Butler said immigration was no silver bullet solution for aged care, but one part of the fix.
With the aged care sector in need of an additional 35,000 workers per year, according to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, the Government has also prioritised the approval of skilled foreign worker visas and increased the annual skilled migrant cap to 195,000 places.
While migrant workers are providing benefits to Australia by alleviating ongoing aged care worker shortages, the scheme is having a negative impact on the countries where the nurses are moving from.
President of the Fiji Nursing Association, Dr Alisi Vudiniabola, is concerned that skilled Fijian nurses are leaving the country to pursue increased pay in aged care roles they are overqualified for while leaving gaps within their country’s own healthcare workforce.
“Some of them are midwives, some advanced clinical nurses, some are managers in primary healthcare centres,” said Dr Vudiniabola to the ABC.
“It’s a big loss for Fiji when we lose such qualified nurses.”
Dr Vudiniabola explained that although there is no publicly available data on the number of Fijian nurses that have moved overseas for work, she believed half of the local workforce has been lost in the past six months.
According to a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 300 Pacific Islanders are employed through the PALM scheme.
Solomon Islands Ministry of Health National Director of Nursing, Michael Larui, said the departure of senior nurses has left a concerning gap in their workforce.
He told the ABC there needs to be better management of outgoing workers “because it will certainly have an impact on the services we provide”.
International concerns about an exodus of workers echo the thoughts of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Chief Nursing Officer (CNO), who last month called on wealthier nations to invest in their local workforce.
CNO Elizabeth Iro said nations such as Australia should “look to the long-term benefits” of retaining and training local workers instead of impacting the healthcare systems of smaller countries.
Despite that, foreign workers who are employed under the PALM scheme have shared their positive experiences in Australia, including Dee Naikidi.
Ms Naikidi worked as a home-based carer in Fiji, but is now based in Western Australia.
“For me, it’s a really, really big step and a big change from my work, because back home we were not really exposed to equipment like computers,” said Ms Naikidi to the ABC.
“I find it brilliant for my skills.”
She said Australia has a far greater demand for aged care workers than Fiji, providing staff like herself with important career opportunities.
A spokesperson for the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, said Australia does not want to negatively impact Pacific Island healthcare systems.
“We will not implement a scheme that deprives the Pacific of important skills, especially in the health sector,” said the spokesperson.
“Participating countries in the Pacific and Timor Leste can and do make decisions about the extent and nature of their participation in the scheme, based on their own needs.
“They decide who can register in their work-ready pool and the relevant qualifications of workers eligible to participate in the PALM scheme.”
While the migrant worker scheme is impacting smaller Pacific countries, Dr Vudiniabola remained optimistic that Fijian workers would be provided with growth opportunities working overseas.
“I’m just hoping that Australia looks at pathways for professional development and does not just leave them being an aged care worker,” said Dr Vudiniabola.
The Government also introduced a pilot training program to benefit aged care workers in Fiji, providing them with training and placement opportunities to receive a Certificate III in Individual Support (ageing).