Alice and Scott* have been running their two-storey pub-turned-backpacker hostel in Queensland’s Wide Bay region, north of Brisbane, for more a decade. Over the years they’ve provided accommodation for thousands of backpackers and itinerant workers who come to the region for fruit-picking jobs.

Before the pandemic, the hostel bustled with backpackers – “mostly from Europe, some Asian backpackers” too, Alice explains. Now they cater exclusively for Pacific Islanders on temporary visas.

We’re sitting in the hostel’s backyard watching a group of men still in their high-vis work gear, barbecuing their dinner. They’re from Vanuatu, Scott says. They’ve been at the hostel for many months. The yard is enclosed by a high wooden fence now. “We had to put that up to stop people looking in, abusing our workers,” Alice says. “People still think these foreigners are taking Aussie jobs.”

They’re not. Australia has had a huge shortage of farm workers since borders were closed in March 2020 and backpacker numbers dried up. Backpacker numbers have not rebounded since the border reopened. In 2019, more than 140,000 young people on the Working Holiday Maker visa flocked to Australia. In 2022, less than half that number had arrived.




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Australia’s borders are open, so where are all the backpackers?


In response, the federal government has been offering more and more work visas under the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme (PALM), a federal government program that allows farmers (and other eligible employers – in July 2022 the federal government expanded the scheme to the services sector) to recruit workers from nine Pacific Island nations as well as Timor Leste.

In 2019, under the PALM scheme’s predecessor policies, there were 6,753 temporary migrants from Pacific Island nations in Australia. By the end of 2022 it was almost 24,000. By the end of

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