A group of Fijian nationals have taken up work in service stations in regional Queensland as the federal government allows more industries to recruit workers from Pacific nations.

Wessel Petroleum, which owns 19 service stations between Townsville and the Sunshine Coast, has become an approved employer of the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme.

The company’s chief executive, Kurt Wessel, said eight workers from Fiji had been hired as console operators in Bundaberg and Hervey Bay.

“We’ve had a lot of trouble getting locals to fill those positions, and it’s probably more staying in the positions,” he said.

he PALM scheme was designed to fill workforce shortages in the agriculture industry but has been expanded to other sectors including meatworks, aged care, hospitality, tourism, and retail.

From farms to servos

Console operator Pontipate Wailevu said it was a “blessing” compared to his previous job on a sweet potato farm when he first arrived in 2022.

“This one is a blessing for me because working on farms is really hard,” he said.

“Working in a service station is good, easy, and you work inside.”

The 24-year-old said he was receiving a minimum 38 hours per week and had enough money to send home to his family after the cost of his flights to Australia were deducted from his wage.

“My first pay I received about $800-plus, that’s after the deduction,” he said.

“So that’s really good. So I send it to my mum and for my brothers.

“They’re [currently in school] in Fiji.”

There have been reports of Pacific workers being exploited within the agriculture industry, and concerns raised over the lack of support as the program expands.

The federal Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, said the Commonwealth was spending $440 million in support initiatives including compliance and country liaison officers.

“If there is exploitation it reflects not just poorly on the employer but reflects poorly on our country as a whole,” he said.

“We’re putting huge resources into making sure it doesn’t happen, and unfortunately where it does that the workers get justice as soon as possible.”

Filling labour gaps

A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said the Australian government was reviewing the scheme’s framework and was committed to another expansion in the coming months.

“Developing a robust approach to assess the feasibility and risks of recruiting workers in new sectors for which PALM scheme workers have not historically been recruited, that is, outside of agriculture, meat processing, aged care, hospitality, and tourism,” the spokesperson said.

Mr Conroy said there were almost 40,000 Pacific workers in Australia.

The number is driven by demand from employers, which has increased by 75 new employers since February 2024.

Expectations for employers

Employers must prove, through labour market testing, they cannot recruit local workers before they can recruit from Pacific nations.

Approved employers are also required to provide accommodation.

“There’s a fully furnished unit above the service station where we’ve got four of them living,” Mr Wessel said.

“We did purchase a house on the Sunshine Coast as well.”

Mr Wessel said it was a financially better decision to become an approved employer rather than paying a labour hire company which charged extra fees.

But it also meant his company could ensure the workers were looked after.

“We believe that we can also look after the workers wellbeing better ourselves and keep an eye on their mental health on a daily basis,” he said.

Plans to employ more PALM workers

Another worker, Alfred Norman, said he was enjoying the experience.

“To be honest when I first arrived I thought I would be working in a meatworks or a farm but I’m surprised that I get to work in a service station, which is much better,” he said.

“Bundaberg it’s a small town and people are so friendly you make friends while you are serving them everyday.”

Mr Wessel said he planned to employ more workers and encouraged other companies to opt into the scheme.

“I think they’d be silly if they didn’t,” he said.

“These guys changed the dynamics of the business. They love working with people, and they’re very lovely people themselves.”

Extracted in full from:  https://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2024-05-23/pacific-workers-move-from-farms-to-service-stations/103878284