Economic and social impact of labour mobility in Vanuatu

28 Feb 2023

Converting the negatives to positives: Vanuatu Strengthening Seasonal Workers Family Programme (SSFWP)

One of the downsides to labour mobility is the negative social impacts on families of workers left behind in their home countries. As Pacific labour mobility programmes are largely dominated by men, the wives are often required to manage the households and take on the roles of both mother and father while their husbands are abroad.

Peter Bumseng was one of the first 45 Vanuatu workers to participate in the New Zealand Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme. He has participated in the program every year since, and in 2011 he and his wife Regina, established the Strengthening Seasonal Worker Family Program in Vanuatu. In an interview with the Australian National University Development Policy Centre, Mr. Bumseng stated: "It started with my wife who took the families once a month, just on social occasions, like taking a picnic. I found this was helpful in New Zealand, as when the men know their families are happy and being looked after, they perform to the best of their ability in a good working environment. This is how we started and came up with some ideas and programs to look after the families. We know we can only move ahead if the process is right, if the families and communities are right."

The SSFWP is essentially a localised support group for the spouses of the workers. It started with five women engaging in monthly meetings at Peter and Regina's home, with Regina regularly checking on workers' spouses to ensure they had support. Peter and Regina would monitor the wellbeing of the workers and their spouses, and when issues arose, they would each provide targeted support to the workers and families involved including through house visits.

Since 2011, the SSWPF has significantly grown in membership. Monthly activities continue to bring together families to support each other and share their experiences. The program now also provides new programmes focusing on social, educational, and spiritual support which are fundamental to helping workers and their families cope with the separation and the potential problems associated. The SSWFP also provides counselling programmes for workers and their spouses and have internally developed solutions to address social problems amongst the members.

The activities of the SSWFP are self-funded through fundraising activities by the workers and their spouses in Vanuatu. The workers in New Zealand set up a Christian reggae band to raise funds through concerts. The spouses also work together to raise funds through selling food, producing local arts and crafts, and sewing items for tourist and local markets. The proceeds have helped the set-up of a rotation of money scheme where each household is given VT15,000 (AUD189) in their fortnightly meetings. They have also initiated a loan scheme for workers and their families who have set up new businesses.

The SSFWP highlights the importance of localised support groups to addressing the negative social impacts of labour mobility. Peter believes that the programme can be replicated in other countries as the challenges are similar. It only takes the commitment of champions such as Peter and his wife to convert the negatives to positive outcomes for the workers and their families.