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Research Article

Investing in home: development outcomes and climate change adaptation for seasonal workers living between Solomon Islands and Australia

ORCID Icon, , &
Pages 852-875
Received 23 Aug 2020
Accepted 13 Oct 2020
Published online: 23 Dec 2020


Labour migration is considered an important pathway for improving economic development in countries of origin. In recent years, labour migration, through the ‘migration as adaptation’ discourse, has been further positioned as a response to changing environmental conditions in places of high climate risk, such as the Pacific Islands region. However, limited empirical work examines whether and how labour mobility schemes enhance both development outcomes and climate change adaptation. This paper considers how temporary and circular labour migrants from Solomon Islands, who are participants in Australia’s Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP), are investing in their lives, households and villages in their country of origin in ways that contribute to development and climate change adaptation. Based on in-depth qualitative research with twelve Solomon Islander SWP participants working on citrus farms in the Mildura region, Australia, we find that investments (via funding, resources and skills) made by labour migrants contribute to development and in-situ climate change adaptation, enabling aspirations for a resilient futures in their community of origin. However, we argue climate change considerations should be formally integrated and mainstreamed into the SWP to fully enable possibilities for transformative climate change adaptation.


The Australian Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP), established in 2012, is a managed temporary and circular labour mobility programme that provides seasonal work opportunities in the Australian agriculture and accommodation sectors (Department of Education, Skills and Employment [DESE], Citation2020a). Participating countries include nine Pacific Island countriesFootnote1 and Timor-Leste. Participants in the programme are permitted to work in Australia for between six and nine months each year, and are eligible to participate in repeat cycles.Footnote2 The SWP also provides an Add-on Skills Training component which ‘allows seasonal workers to access basic training in First Aid, English and IT skills’ (DESE, Citation2020b).

The SWP has two core objectives. First, to ensure a reliable seasonal workforce for Australian producers and employers who are unable to source sufficient local Australian workers to meet seasonal labour needs. Second, to contribute to the economic development of participating countries through employment experience, skills and knowledge transfer, and remittances (Joint Standing Committee on Migration [JSCM], Citation2016). The SWP has been criticised for workers’ highly constrained movements once in Australia, their insecure and precarious work conditions, vulnerability to exploitation, lack of access to permanent residency and SWP worker deaths in Australia (Bedford et al., Citation2017; Howes & Muller, Citation2018; Stead, Citation2019). However, there is also evidence that financial remittances earned via the SWP generate positive changes for SWP workers and their families including poverty alleviation, housing improvements, enhanced access to education, and disaster recovery (JSCM, Citation2016; Underhill-Sem & Marsters, Citation2017).

While only around 2.5 percent of SWP workers come from Solomon Islands (Lawton, Citation2019), the number of Solomon Islanders participating in the programme was doubling each year since 2016 (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade [DFAT], Citation2018a), prior to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on worker numbers in 2020. There were 314 workers in the 2018–2019 annual intake (DFAT, Citation2020). This new form of international mobility has the potential to bring about transformative changes (Farbotko et al., Citation2018) to the lives of Solomon Islanders participating in the SWP, especially given the otherwise low rates of international migration among Solomon Islanders (International Organisation for Migration [IOM], Citation2020) and the challenges of climate change in small island developing states (Klöck & Fink, Citation2019). The programme presents an opportunity for labour migrants to contribute to economic development in their home countries. However, little is known about the experiences, opportunities and challenges of Solomon Islanders in the SWP, and if and how the SWP enhances development outcomes and capacity to adapt to climate change.

In this paper we provide in-depth insights into the experiences and perspectives of twelve Solomon Islander SWP workersFootnote3 in regional Victoria, Australia. We discuss their motivations and reasons for participating in the SWP; how they are investing in their lives, households and villages in their country of origin; and their aspirations for their futures. We examine the development opportunities of participation in the SWP – as perceived and described by the SWP participants themselves – for individuals, their families and households, and the wider community in Solomon Islands. Further, given climate change is affecting Solomon Islands in significant ways (Dey et al., Citation2016; Leal Filho et al., Citation2020; Rasmussen et al., Citation2009), we also explore participants’ accounts of how the investments they make contribute to in-situ climate change adaptation, as workers provide funding, resources and skills that build adaptive capacity and enable aspirations for a resilient future in their communities of origin (Barnett & Webber, Citation2010). This is important, as climate change adaptation progress has been slow and is not easy to achieve (Nunn et al., Citation2014), prompting growing calls for adaptation to be situated at multiple scales and in multiple sectors (Conway & Mustelin, Citation2014). At a time when climate change is being mainstreamed across policy sectors, particularly in development assistance, the SWP program is notable for having no explicit linkages to climate change adaptation priorities in the region. This study therefore provides insights into whether and how labour migration enhances development outcomes and climate change adaptation by exploring its effects on the lives and livelihood assets of twelve Solomon Islanders.

The next section outlines debates focussed on both the migration-development and migration-climate change nexus, and how these debates are beginning to be better connected and integrated. This is followed by a description of the environment, economy and population dynamics in Solomon Islands. Next, we describe the study site (the Mildura region of Victoria, Australia), study participants, and research methods. We then present and discuss empirical findings about the contribution of the SWP to development and adaptation in Solomon Islands.

Integrating climate change adaptation into migration and development

Human migration can be integral to development and socio-economic change (Castles, Citation2009; Skeldon, Citation2008). Since the 1950s, there have been ongoing debates about the contributions of international migration to development in countries of migrant origin (De Haas, Citation2010). These debates variously highlight, for example, the adverse impacts of ‘brain drain’ versus the positive economic impacts of migrant remittances (e.g. Collier, Citation2013; Gamlen, Citation2014; Skeldon, Citation2008). Similarly, there are debates as to whether mobility represents a way for migrants to exercise agency within the global capitalist system through livelihood diversification and economic gain (Castles, Citation2009; de Haas, Citation2010; Skeldon, Citation2008), or whether, in placing responsibility for development upon migrants, attention is thereby diverted away from structural and institutional drivers of development (Faist, Citation2008; Gamlen, Citation2014; Skeldon, Citation2008). Beyond these debates, there is a persistent policy-level expectation that migration contributes to development in countries of origin.

The 2006 United Nations High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development recognised that ‘no development strategy, no trade strategy, no foreign policy strategy should move forward without integrating migration considerations’ (Al Khalifa, Citation2006, Opening Statement). The Dialogue considered the advantages of temporary and circular migration, including: avoiding permanent losses of human capital in countries of origin; provision of remittances in preparation for return home; and fostering transfers of skills, knowledge, technology, expertise and new ways of thinking (Bedford et al., Citation2017; IOM, Citation2013; United Nations [UN], Citation2006; UN General Assembly [UNGA], Citation2006). Consequently, this Dialogue triggered new momentum for promoting temporary and circular labour migration schemes which, in the Oceania region, led to the development of New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme and Australia’s SWP. Both initiatives target Pacific Islanders as temporary and circular labour migrants (Bedford et al., Citation2017; IOM, Citation2013).

Parallel to research and policy attention on the role of international migration in development, have been efforts to understand the links between migration and environmental and/or climate change. As with debates around migration and development, researchers have highlighted both the problems and benefits of environmental or climate-related mobility. They have, for example, variously positioned climate-related mobility as a crisis or, alternatively, as an important way of responding and adapting to environmental and climatic risk (see Bardsley & Hugo, Citation2010; Barnett & Webber, Citation2010; Black et al., Citation2011; McLeman & Smit, Citation2006; Ransan-Cooper et al., Citation2015; Remling, Citation2020; Tacoli, Citation2009; Wrathall & Suckall, Citation2016). The milestone Foresight (Citation2011) review into migration and global environmental change concluded that migration can represent a ‘transformational and strategic approach to adaptation’ (p. 200) not only by improving the coping capacity of communities but also by reducing their vulnerability and building resilience. However, the concept of ‘migration as adaptation’ has been criticised for placing the burden on individuals to adapt to climate impacts, particularly through livelihood diversification, while nations responsible for greenhouse gas emissions are not held to account. There are concerns that adapting to climate change through (largely labour) mobility schemes, serves to replicate neoliberal processes that place the burden on individuals to adapt, with the perverse result that the interests of high income nations are served by supply of labour from low- and middle-income countries (Felli & Castree, Citation2012; Methmann & Oels, Citation2015).

It is only recently that these parallel discussions in the migration-development arena and the migration-environment arena are beginning to be connected in a more comprehensive way (e.g. see Gioli et al., Citation2016; Remling, Citation2020). Emerging work indicates that migration, including labour mobility, may contribute to socioeconomic development and also build climate resilience and adaptive capacity in places of migrant origin (Dun et al., Citation2018; Sakdapolrak et al., Citation2016; Scheffran et al., Citation2012). This work points to the ways in which human mobility can shape in-situ adaptation in places of origin as source communities increasingly contend with emerging climatic risk. In particular, some policy research suggests that temporary circular labour mobility schemes might support climate change adaptation in addition to contributing to socio-economic development in source countries (Foresight, Citation2011; Gromilova, Citation2015; Remling, Citation2020). For example, the Foresight (Citation2011) report flagged the potential benefits and opportunities of ‘planned, circular migration from countries that are likely to be particularly vulnerable to environmental change’ (p. 183). And Bedford et al. (Citation2017) state that seasonal work schemes in Australia and New Zealand ‘could become one of most significant policies for facilitating adaptation by Pacific families to changing environmental conditions in their own communities’ (p. 40). How this facilitation might occur, however, is a knowledge gap. Few labour mobility policies and schemes, including those in Australia (and New Zealand), address both economic development and climate change adaptation in their stated goals (Gromilova, Citation2015). Questions remain as to whether and how labour mobility programmes can support transformative outcomes whereby labour migration contributes to both positive development outcomes and climate change adaptation (Farbotko et al., Citation2018).

This paper draws from Sakdapolrak et al.’s (Citation2016) translocal social resilience approach. Social resilience is not a fixed state but rather a process of dealing with stress, evident in the ‘the ability of groups or communities to cope with external stresses and disturbances as a result of social, political and environmental change’ (Adger, Citation2000, p. 347). Migration by household or community members can increase the resilience of both those who migrate and those who stay behind by having ‘a transformative effect on the adaptive capacity of those involved’ (Foresight, Citation2011, p. 190). Adaptive capacity is defined as the ability to respond and adjust to change, moderate and cope with damage, as well as take advantage of opportunities (Eakin et al., Citation2014; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], Citation2014).

The translocal social resilience approach highlights migration as a contemporary reality; frames the environment as both a threat and crucial resource for livelihoods; recognises the historical contexts of individuals’ efforts to cope, adapt or transform livelihoods; acknowledges that mobility and livelihoods are shaped by human agency and structural limitations, embedded in risk contexts and networks; and foregrounds enduring links of migrants to their places of origin despite being at a distance (Sakdapolrak et al., Citation2016). A translocal social resilience approach highlights the simultaneous connectedness of migrants to sites of origin and new sites of residence ‘through the establishment of routine activities in and between multiple places’ (Sakdapolrak et al., Citation2016, p. 89). With emphasis on how places are connected through migration, it considers the role of translocal spaces in shaping social resilience to insecurities ranging from environmental change to economic insecurity and social conflict (Peth & Sakdapolrak, Citation2020).

Informed by the translocal social resilience approach, we consider the ways in which the SWP, as a temporary and circular labour mobility scheme, enhances both development outcomes and climate change adaptation. This is done via examining how livelihood diversification and skills development in new (temporary) sites of residence, can bring new knowledge, money, goods and skills to communities of origin, and increase access to resources such as social networks, education and information (Barnett & Webber, Citation2010; Frank & Penrose Buckley, Citation2012; Nel, Citation2015; Peth & Sakdapolrak, Citation2020).

Solomon Islands: environment, economy and population dynamics

The Republic of Solomon Islands consists of six main mountainous islands,Footnote4 and more than 900 smaller islands including both atoll and low-lying islands. The estimated 2020 Solomon Islands population is 686,878 people (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs [UNDESA] Population Division, Citation2019), over 80 percent of whom live in low-lying coastal areas and in villages (DFAT, Citation2018b; Leal Filho et al., Citation2020). Guadalcanal, the largest island, is home to the capital city Honiara (population of approximately 67,000) and is the only island with a significant area of grassland and fertile soils (PCCP, Citation2019). Tourism, subsistence agriculture, fishing and resource exports (i.e. timber, palm oil, coconut, cocoa beans, copra, gold and seafood) are central to Solomon Islands’ economy and the nation has an Exclusive Economic Zone of approximately 1.34 million square kilometres (PCCP, Citation2019; UNCDP, Citation2018; Wickham et al., Citation2012).

Solomon Islands is ranked as having low human development (Human Development Index ranking is currently 153 out of 189) and low per capita income UNDP, Citation2018; Wickham et al., Citation2012). A priority articulated in its National Development Strategy (NDS) 2016–2035, ‘is to achieve an improvement in the social and economic livelihoods of all Solomon Islanders’ (Ministry of Development, Planning and Aid Coordination [MDPAC], Citation2016, p. 11). The NDS specifies five long-term development objectives: sustained and inclusive economic growth; equitable distribution of development benefits including nationwide poverty alleviation, meeting of basic needs and improved food security; access to quality health and education; environmentally sustainable development with effective disaster risk management, response and recovery; and stable and effective governance and public order (MDPAC, Citation2016, p. 11).

Solomon Islands is amongst the most environmentally fragile countries in the world (Leal Filho et al., Citation2020; UNCDP, Citation2018). In addition to overexploitation of forest resources for timber logging and export, Solomon Islands experiences climate change impacts (UNCDP, Citation2018; Wickham et al., Citation2012). These include sea-level rise, warming air temperatures, saltwater intrusion, extreme events (cyclones, droughts etc.), and threats to food security and agricultural production (PCCP, Citation2019). Notably, coral reefs and surrounding areas are under threat from ocean acidification with adverse effects for fish populations, food security and the fishing industry (PCCP, Citation2019). The sea level in Solomon Islands has risen 7–10 mm per year (three times the global average) over the past two decades (Church et al., Citation2013; Wickham et al., Citation2012).

The Solomon Islands government recognizes that climate change is a sustainable development issue. In its National Climate Change Policy 2012–2017, the government commits to ‘mainstream climate change as an integral part of its national sustainable development strategy and programs’ (Wickham et al., Citation2012, p. 14). Vulnerability to climate impacts requires adaptation to emerging risks and, in some cases, planning for possible retreat and relocation of populations due to sea-level rise and associated coastal changes (Albert et al., Citation2018; Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Meteorology [MECM], Citation2008; Wickham et al., Citation2012). A deeper understanding of whether and how human mobility, such as labour migration, might contribute to sustainable development, climate change adaptation and reducing exposure to disaster risks can help to inform the government’s commitments under its National Climate Change Policy.

There are higher numbers of internal migrants in Solomon Islands, as compared to international emigrants (Ministry of Finance and Treasury [MOFT], Citation2013). Solomon Islands is considered a low-mobility country with only 0.3–0.5 percent of the population migrating overseas (IOM, Citation2020; MOFT, Citation2013; World Bank, Citation2016). One reason for low rates of international migration is that, unlike other Pacific Island nations, Solomon Islands does not have residential access to ex-colonial countries (MOFT, Citation2013). In 2019, migrant remittance flows to Solomon Islands amounted to US$20 million or 1.3% of the nation’s GDP, which is low compared to most other Pacific Island nations. According to the 2009 national census, the majority of Solomon Islanders migrating overseas are tertiary educated and the main destination countries are Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Australia and Vanuatu (MOFT, Citation2013).

For just over a decade, opportunities for Solomon Islanders to move abroad temporarily for labour migration have opened via new managed temporary labour migration schemes, namely, the New Zealand RSE scheme (operating since 2007), the Australian SWP (operating since 2012) and the Australian Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS, operating since 2018). This has created new international migration pathways for Solomon Islanders, including those who are unemployed and not tertiary educated. A review of the development impacts of international circular labour mobility schemes, between Pacific countries and New Zealand and Australia, pointed to ‘transformative effects’ (p. 6) on development for Pacific countries (Underhill-Sem & Marsters, Citation2017).

For the SWP, recruitment of Solomon Island workers occurs via the Labour Mobility Unit (LMU) which sits within the Solomon Islands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and External Trade (MFAET). The LMU states that seasonal work in Australia (and New Zealand) provides significant opportunities for Solomon Islanders to increase income, develop new skills and provide additional resources for their families through remittances (MFAET, Citation2020). It reports that workers can save between SBD$40,000-SBD$80,000Footnote5 after six months in Australia (MFAET, Citation2020). Furthermore, recognising that Solomon Islands is prone to disasters, the LMU, during the 2016 Australian Parliamentary inquiry into the SWP, expressed that it ‘would welcome formal recognition of labour mobility support in times of natural disaster’ suggesting that the ‘terms and conditions of additional support can be determined per natural disaster’ (LMU, Citation2015, p. 2). The LMU plans to increase the number of Solomon Islanders participating in the SWP (MFAET, Citation2020).Footnote6

Study site, participants and methods

Research with twelve Solomon Islander SWP participants took place in the Mildura region of Victoria, Australia (Figure 1) between August and October 2019. The Mildura region is located near the confluence of Murray and Darling rivers and is an important farming area for both domestic and export food production in Australia. The region has dryland farming as well as a substantial horticulture industry producing grapes (table, wine and dried grapes), nuts (almonds and pistachios), citrus, melons, avocadoes, vegetables (carrots, asparagus and lettuce) and olives (Mildura Regional Development [MRD], Citation2016). All twelve SWP participants interviewed were working on orange and mandarin citrus farms in the region and were in their first to third year of SWP participation. They were performing on-farm duties (picking fruit, planting seedlings or netting trees) or packing shed work (sorting and packing fruit, driving forklifts, managing teams or being general hands) and employed six days per week, usually for 8–12-hour shifts.

Figure 1. Map of Australia showing Mildura region study area. Credit: Chandra Jayasuriya.

The twelve SWP participants live in Guadalcanal province in Solomon Islands and described close ties to other Solomon Island provinces (Central, Malaita, Temotu and Western provinces) where some had grown up and where their extended family (parents, siblings, aunts/uncles and/or grandparents) reside. Six participants live in rural parts of Guadalcanal province and six live in urban or peri-urban areas of Honiara. There were eight male and four female participants falling into age group categories from 25 to 49 years (see ). Nine participants are married, three are single, and most are parents with between one and five children. The household sizes of participants range from one to nine members, with an average household size of five members. Participants’ education levels varied from having no formal education to having tertiary-level certificates. Most had held jobs outside the agricultural sector in Solomon Islands (see ) prior to participating in the SWP, and were growing food crops for subsistence or small-scale commercial purposes.

Table 1. Participant attributes

Results presented in this paper draw on in-depth semi-structured interviews with these twelve Solomon Island SWP participants. Research was conducted using a careful ethical approach under ethics clearance obtained from the University of Melbourne. Recruitment of participants occurred via the Australian-based Labour Mobility Coordinator for Solomon IslandsFootnote7. The coordinator and researchers invited 37 Solomon Island SWP workers to two informal events (barbeque, pizza lunch) in Mildura in August 2019, at which the purpose and nature of the research was explained by the first author (verbally and via dissemination of a written Plain Language Statement). Workers wishing to participate were invited to connect with the research team via phone and Facebook Messenger and subsequent interviews were arranged.

Interviews took place on workers’ weekly day off, lasted approximately two to three hours and were conducted variously in a meeting room at Sunraysia Mallee Ethnic Communities Council or at the accommodation of the worker, interpreter or researcher. Care was taken to minimise disruption to the workers’ day off, with interviews arranged around workers shopping needs, recreational activities or mealtimes. Participants were compensated with a meal and supermarket gift voucher. Interviews were conducted primarily in English but with a Pijin-speaking interpreter present during some interviews (n = 6) to translate some concepts or words. Interviews explored participants’ lives and livelihoods in Solomon Islands; environmental and agricultural challenges and opportunities in Solomon Islands; reasons for participating in the SWP; perceived benefits and challenges of participating in the SWP for themselves, their families and their communities; new knowledge, skills and/or experiences gained; and future aspirations upon return to Solomon Islands. Where consent was provided interviews were audio-recorded, otherwise handwritten notes were taken. Audio-recorded interviews were transcribed. Interview notes and transcriptions were coded using NVivo software. Participants are referred to using pseudonyms.

A constraint of the research is that Solomon Islanders are keen to increase their participation in the SWP (with other Pacific Island countries dominating worker numbers); accordingly, participants may have spoken positively about their SWP experiences with the assumption that their statements and reputation would have implications for future opportunities for Solomon Islander participation in the SWP. Additionally, the sample size is small; this is because there are few Solomon Islanders working in the region, only those willing to participate in the research were interviewed, and some level of data saturation was reached.


This section outlines, first, SWP migrants’ motivations and reasons for participating in the SWP. Second, migrant experiences of the SWP are detailed including perceived opportunities for skills development, remittances and investments. Finally, the transformative potential of the SWP is discussed by highlighting migrants’ plans upon their return home, and their aspirations for their future. The findings are based on migrants’ own accounts of their experiences and aspirations.

Reasons for participating in the SWP

Solomon Islands, and more specifically, communities of origin, are valued for their diverse ecosystems and agricultural opportunities, and the social and family connectedness of everyday life. Participants frequently referred to: the productive marine environment for fishing, diving and tourism; their love of the sea and saltwater living and freshwater rivers; the beauty and diverse uses of mangroves; an appreciation and care for trees and forests; and the resilience of some food sources (such as bananas and swamp taro). These are exemplified by the following quotes:

… good fishing, diving, environment is good. (John)

… we live by the sea, all the foods that we need, we can get it from the sea and maybe it’s much better than the bush, so that’s why they – I don’t know of some of our people but maybe because we’re born and being raised by the sea, so we all love to stay by the sea. It’s part of our living. (Stanley)

It’s a beautiful place surrounded with mangroves. Like the mainland surrounded with mangroves. (Cathy)

While their ties to, and appreciation of, home was strong, participants referred to powerful motivations for participating in the SWP. Importantly, the SWP provides an opportunity to earn money in Australia. Many workers explained it would take two weeks of work in Solomon Islands to earn the equivalent of one day’s work in Australia. In addition to providing personal income, workers valued the opportunity to provide financial assistance to their households, families and communities. For example, David explained that with the financial contributions provided to his family from his income from seasonal work, his family had moved out of poverty:

In the past we just live – my father left us with a small leaf house, so it’s like we still in the poverty line. So when I’m in the seasonal program it give us a next step, it give us a next level. So we just ease in bit by bit.

Other cited motivations for participating in the SWP scheme included: being unemployed, underemployed or underpaid in Solomon Islands; a desire to see Australia and another culture; setting an example for youth in their village; increased independence; and to help Australia. Some migrants also mentioned there was insufficient government support for agricultural development and extension in Solomon Islands, which limited their opportunities to diversify and expand their livelihoods.

For some, environmental and agricultural challenges in Solomon Islands provided further impetus, or at least relevant context, for participating in the SWP. These included changes to fish populations; logging; coastal erosion and sea-level rise; reef damage; ocean current changes; weather variability; environmental hazards such as tsunamis and flash flooding; environmental challenges in urban areas (e.g. limited access to clean water, poor waste management); pest infestations of crops (particularly the giant African snail); and difficulties growing crops under drought conditions. Participants explained that heavy rains and floods cause root crops to rot, strong winds and cyclones cause banana trees to fall down, hot and dry conditions cause the ground to crack and leaves to burn with plants unable to bear good-quality fruit, and the tides are getting higher leading to loss of coconut trees and coastal flooding and erosion. John and Benjamin explained how these environmental changes were adversely affecting food sources:

Sometimes the food not really good … I think, because of climate change or weather. Sometimes you grow potato and they haven’t got good, yeah, like no yield … [Another] thing is we live in a coastal environment, before sea-level rise, yeah, it’s coming up. Like high tide, very high …. And now the high tide usually goes past the [high water] mark … Since 2013 … a lot of coconut get washed away. (John)

Weather … changes too this time … [rainy season getting] longer … Sometimes heavier, then flood. Flood. Always flash flood. That’s the changes come up now … More flash floods because the riverbank … already break off. So when it start raining and high swell, river high, the water comes into the roads. And some villages … Very difficult now … when it’s raining, flooding, it cover all their food up … After flash flood, then you start again. … in the garden … We just eat from shop … Instead of vegetables, buy rice. (Benjamin)

Participants also suggested that changing weather had led to damage to housing and infrastructure. Simon, for example, explained that increased rainfall contributed to flooding of the Matanikau River that runs through Honiara, leading to the destruction of homes:

Sometimes it rain for almost two weeks. It’s really changed a lot [in the last 10 years]. … before it’s like season … Now it’s hard to predict the weather. … Matanikau, it flooded. … we never seen that river flood. And it destroys many houses beside the river.

Skills development, remittances and investments

Investments in self

Participants referred to new skills and knowledge gained from participating in the SWP, often incidentally rather than through formal training. They had learned about: citrus crop varieties; techniques for taking care of or growing crops (including grafting, spacing, netting and pruning); farming technologies and management strategies; techniques for packing fresh produce; use of fertilisers and chemicals; and how to collaborate with co-workers. Many expressed an interest in applying their learnings upon return home (see ). Some workers planned to trial planting citrus trees when they returned to Solomon Islands, as an alternative for crops destroyed by the African snail. Some intended to apply grafting techniques to crops when returning home, such as mango, guava and hibiscus plants. Another SWP migrant explained how his observations of citrus trees in Mildura led him to change the spacing of plantings on his noniFootnote8 farm in Solomon Islands. Others working in citrus packing planned to apply packing skills when collecting or transporting produce. In sum, skills and learnings gained through the SWP allowed workers to think innovatively about how they could change or trial new farming practices when they returned home to diversify and increase income earning potential.

Table 2. New things SWP participants mentioned they had learned from participating in the SWP

SWP migrants indicated how skills in time, budget and people management were gained through their participation in the SWP. One worker, for example, planned to apply different methods of payment, namely piece rates and hourly rates, to pay farm labourers on his own farm in Solomon Islands. Additionally, SWP workers said they benefited from improved internet access, the chance to improve computer skills, the opportunity to improve their English language and gaining an Australian forklift licence. For example, some valued the opportunity to access ideas for small business via the internet and, given the relative expense of accessing the internet in Solomon Islands, the workers took advantage of downloading and saving content while in Australia. As one SWP worker explained:

I learn a lot of things. I always downloaded new things. One thing is how to make brick, how to make flowerpots, out of cement. I downloaded it from here, and I go back home and I told my wife, and she’s doing it. And there are many people interested in it, and they paid for my wife … [to make] flowerpots. (Simon)

Investment in immediate and extended family members

Participants invested in others by purchasing material items: sometimes to improve material wealth but more often to invest in business and village infrastructure. Nearly all SWP workers were supporting their immediate family and household members, commonly spouse and children, via their SWP earnings. Many reported that their SWP earnings helped them to pay their children’s school fees. The participants varied in their remittance sending patterns with some remitting money weekly or monthly (n = 6), while others sent money only when there was a specific need (n = 5).Footnote9 For those remitting money regularly, it was commonly used to contribute towards basic living costs (e.g. food, groceries, transport and household expenses). Many SWP migrants also used earnings to support extended family members, particularly parents, parents-in-law, aunts and uncles, siblings, and nieces and nephews. For example, SWP migrants reported upgrading their parents’ houses, paying for family members’ passport fees to enable them to sign up for the SWP, assisting sick or disabled family members with healthcare needs, and paying school fees for nieces, nephews or siblings (see ).

Table 3. People SWP participants invested in, in Solomon Islands, with their SWP earnings

Participants purchased diverse items with SWP earnings: e.g. batteries for solar panels; boat engines; children’s clothing, toys and learning materials; clothes; electricity generators; farming chemicals (insecticides, fertilisers); furniture; household utensils and equipment; building materials (e.g. timber, concrete); mobile phones; sanitation infrastructure (e.g., water pipes, toilet); solar panels; stereos; tools (e.g. drills, whipper snippers, brick mould); televisions; vehicles; and water tanks. Some items were purchased in Solomon Islands, but many were purchased in Australia and workers planned to take them home. Those in their second or third SWP season explained that, in 2018, workers had pooled their money to pay for a shipping container of items (e.g. solar panels, generators, tools, farming equipment, second-hand furniture) to be sent from Mildura to Honiara.

These items purchased (e.g. cars, tools, generators) were valued as they were understood to enable education, improve health, improve access to information, and support income generation in the immediate and extended family and support villagers’ needs. Vivian, for example, explained that solar panels sent home by seasonal workers provide household electricity, which ‘helps kids to study at night’. And others have taken back generators which provide electricity and support small business initiatives, such as a small cinema:

One guy made a small cinema with a generator and a small TV. And he uses that cinema to charge a small fee and uses the money he earns from the ‘cinema fee’ to pay his kids’ school fees. (Vivian)

Another woman, Cathy, explained that she intended to use her SWP earnings to purchase things that are useful but difficult to get in the village in Malaita: kitchen utensils, baby items, and second-hand clothing. She planned to take back second-hand clothing to sell during the Christmas period from her grandmother’s shop. And Simon explained that his SWP earnings allowed him to connect a water supply to his house and install a flush toilet:

I think I get a capital to build a good house for my family and in 2017 I earn some money from the seasonal program, I get back and the standard of living is really poor back home, so I installed a water supply to my house, so I get a water supply to my house and I build a good sanitation, a good flush toilet.

Tools are particularly useful items, purchased with SWP earnings, that help people build or repair their houses, earn income or contribute to village initiatives. Whipper snippers, for example, have been brought back to villages, enabling people to earn income by clearing roadside grass ‘because the government pays per kilometre of grass cleared’ (Vivian). Mobile phones allowed workers to newly access the internet and hence a greater variety and more targeted information useful to them as Benjamin explained:

We got a new phone. … Then you just go internet, then you look at weather. Rather than you don’t have radio then something happened, and you just go on information or weather. Now in some islands we’ve got our own Wi-Fi internet on weather like you do here [in Australia]. You just click on it and it’ll tell you today sunny or rain. We always look at the newspaper but now I can look at internet too.

Investment in the village community and beyond

Participants also used earnings to contribute to their village. John and eight other workers from his village, contributed towards the purchase of a laptop for their village church for which he said the ‘community were very happy’. Workers from another village had given money for building a new church. Another worker used his SWP earnings to contribute to the construction and furnishing of a guest-house in his birth village. This worker explained that having a village guest-house might make it easier to attract non-government organisations (NGOs) or guests to the village. They hoped NGOs or guests may then choose his village to establish an environmental project, e.g. a mangrove planting and conservation project or rainwater tank project.

Four workers reported that they contributed earnings to improving water supply infrastructure in their villages. They purchased water pipes to channel fresh water, concrete for lining wells, and electricity generators to pump water from a bore hole. Lisa explained:

Getting water for domestic use is difficult in our village. The water supply involves getting water from the stream, but we have to walk far. I have contributed with my family to pipe the water closer to the village, but the water is still 100 metres away.

One SWP worker, Henry, contributed to improved water supply via a bore hole in his village and named the bore hole he installed ‘Murray River’. He explained that he enjoyed the opportunity to contribute to the wellbeing of his village:

I’m really enjoying the programme. Really, really enjoy it because even my first year, and then go back home, and doing my house, and I’m doing bore hole, paying generator, supplying up water for the whole community … It’s really helpful … we have problem in the water. No water … [now] everyone … come and take water the bore hole and back … I say [to other villagers] that “this water is Murray River. This bore hole called Murray River.” … The money I used to pay for this bore hole is from Australia, so drinking the Murray River … Really it’s [the SWP is] really helpful.

Finally, some SWP migrants were distributing earnings by employing others or directly helping the poor. Pauline, for example, described how she was looking forward to returning home and visiting poorer people in her village and neighbouring villages. She was pleased to have extra money to give them from her Australian earnings:

When I come over [to Australia] it’s a big money. So, when I change it to Solomon currency, I know they’re [poorer people] going to be happy when I go to visit them. I always visit them monthly, for poor people … .sometimes they are sick. When I arrive, they go to chemist. Take medicine for them. Use the money.

Others used SWP earnings to pay domestic helpers, to help care for children, and do housework while they were away working in Australia. And some were expanding their businesses through their SWP earning and employing more labourers. For example, two participants had increased the scale of their fruit crop plantings and employed extra labourers to help manage their farms, as John explained:

I bought labour to planting bananas for food security … More banana … more tree … more than 300 [extra trees]. … I bring money from here [Australia] and I go over to Honiara and buy labour, [to] clean up and planting.

SWP migrants’ future aspirations

Many workers had specific goals that they wanted to achieve with their SWP earnings: building a new additional house (n = 9), upgrading their current house (n = 7), establishing a small business (n = 6), buying a vehicle (n = 4), investing in their farm business or expanding their farm business (n = 3) and buying land (n = 1). For example, several people said they wished to build an additional house to have a rental property that could earn income. Others planned to set up a small shop, expand their farms or buy a vehicle and set up a taxi service' to avoid … sending money … all the time. The van is there to work, so that I can save more money [while in Australia]’ (Cathy). Charles, for example, planned to establish a farm and use the SWP earnings to pay for farm labour and other inputs:

I was planning of make a farm in my wife’s land because there’s a big land in there. So I was thinking of planting noni … For sure I need money to pay the labour, to prepare the field, to prepare the place. … I was thinking of managing it [myself], yeah, and I will pay people to help me work for me.

And Stanley planned to use SWP earnings to achieve his ‘big dream’ and establish a poultry farm, explaining that he is now working on the financial plans for the farm. He said:

[one] can do a poultry farm. Because it’s in the mangroves … we don’t clear the mangroves. You can build on top of it … now I’m into the financial side of it. I’m working on the finances now, how to manage the finances that I earn, save it and start putting it into the plans.

Four participants indicated that use of their earnings for housing construction and upgrading would enable them to cope with changing environmental conditions in Solomon Islands. They variously explained that: the wind has become ‘so strong’ such that they need to ‘make a low house’; their house is ‘very close to the seaside’ and they need to retreat due to rising sea levels; and the traditional leaf house needs to be reinforced because of the climate and the ‘strong wind’. Benjamin, for example, explained:

I’ll build my new permanent house. Like tin roof house, because back home we used to stay in leaf. We make leaf like bush material. That’s what we stay under. … I want to stay under tin roof. … better for no rain comes in. Because the traditional house, sometimes left grow old. Then rain can go inside. That’s the challenge.

And John had plans to move his house further inland in response to rising seas:

I have to move back little bit from the seaside. So I have to remove my house to, say, about a hundred metres from the sea … I build a good proper toilet and everything and close, very close to the seaside … I’ve been talk with my wife but she said to me that sea level minimums rise up … So we plan to move out from that village where we live.

So, while the primary motivation for participating in the SWP was to earn income and save money, many had specific goals they hoped to achieve through increased financial resources. Their aspirations related to increasing standards of living and livelihood opportunities in their communities of origin and, for some, adapting to changing environmental conditions.

Discussion and conclusion

The nexus between migration and social resilience ‘is often assumed rather than demonstrated through microstudies’ (Siegmann, Citation2010, p. 346). Our paper sought to show how labour mobility and translocal connectedness impact the social resilience of migrants and their family networks and contribute to addressing broader development and adaptation imperatives. For the twelve SWP participants from Solomon Islands that participated in this study, this new form of international labour mobility appears to be transformative whereby it is improving development outcomes in communities of origin. First, participants have been able to enhance their assets, particularly human (e.g. investing in children’s education; increased farming skills), financial (e.g. increased earnings and remittances; investment in small businesses and farms to generate future earnings), and physical (e.g. improved housing and living conditions, water and sanitation infrastructure; purchase of tools, technologies and other household items) assets. Participation in the SWP has provided a chance for workers to invest in themselves, their households, their extended family and their villages. Second, it creates possibilities for SWP workers to address environmental challenges they face by improving and climate-proofing housing, relocating housing away from sites of environmental risk, trying different crop varieties that can potentially withstand pests, and diversifying livelihoods beyond agriculture-dependent incomes. It supports local social and economic development and, for some, adaptation to changing environmental conditions through bolstering their livelihood assets and investing in home.

So, this form of circular and temporary international labour mobility, enables people to improve their lives and futures. This represents a form of translocal social resilience (Sakdapolrak et al., Citation2016) whereby SWP participants benefit from international labour migration opportunities, sustain connections to sites of origin while working in Australia, and draw on new skills, assets and resources as a crucial resource for development, livelihoods and adaptation to changing environmental conditions in Solomon Islands. While SWP participants face environmental and agricultural challenges in Solomon Islands, they are heavily invested in the long-term futures of their homes. Notably, these transformations mean there is even more for individuals and households to protect in Solomon Islands. While much research in environmental migration suggests that people will migrate away from places of climate vulnerability and risk (c.f. Black et al., Citation2011), this study shows that migrants are investing in places of belonging in Solomon Islands, a country considered highly exposed to climate change impacts. So, the SWP does not represent a pathway to escape an increasingly vulnerable place, as climatic impacts emerge and amplify, but rather enables development, connection and new investments in home thereby giving people even more reason to remain and adapt in situ.

Temporary labour migration schemes can potentially support both climate change adaptation as well as stated development goals. Diversification of livelihood assets, new learning opportunities, and increasing agency and innovation can contribute to both development and adaptation (Cinner et al., Citation2018; Warrick et al., Citation2017) and our study shows these are enabled through migration. Yet there is still a lack of empirical studies focusing on the translocal dimensions of social resilience, development and climate adaptation in contexts of migration (Peth & Sakdapolrak, Citation2020).

Achieving development and climate change adaptation are not separate endeavours. As has been widely noted, urgent physical, political, economic, social and institutional adjustments are needed for countries and populations to adapt to climate change impacts and achieve sustainable development pathways (Robinson, Citation2020). Climate vulnerabilities are connected to wider development contexts and concerns that shape capacity to develop and implement good, adequate, effective and/or successful adaptation actions. Increasingly, holistic policies are being developed to support adaptation, enable disaster risk reduction, and support community-based approaches to development (c.f. UNEP, Citation2014). Further, there have been strong calls to mainstream climate change into all aspects of policy development including migration programmes. In particular, development activities globally are recognized as being in need of ‘climate proofing’ to ensure they are sustainable, while also strengthening resilience to climate change in vulnerable countries (e.g. De Roeck et al., Citation2018). Temporary labour mobility schemes should be no exception to climate mainstreaming, yet it has been noted that those schemes in Australia (and New Zealand) do not currently recognize the importance of climate change adaptation, or set climate change adaptation as a component of their goals (Gromilova, Citation2015). There are likely to be positive synergies with development outcomes if climate change adaptation is explicitly incorporated in temporary labour mobility programmes, and this is particularly important for Pacific Island countries such as Solomon Islands which are highly exposed to climate change.

At present, given climate change considerations are not integrated into SWP policy, this limits possibilities for climate change adaptation to be transformative. Host and participating country governments should integrate climate change adaptation more formally into the SWP to enable relevant funds, programmes and structural supports to ensure that the burden does not fall on workers alone to adapt to climate change, and to facilitate transformative climate change adaptation. For example, workers could be provided training in climate resilient housing, crops and practices through the SWP’s Add-on Skills mechanism (see also Dun et al., Citation2018; Thornton et al., Citation2020). If workers are provided with options to enhance their skills in climate-resilient housing and agriculture while engaged in agricultural work abroad, they can share these skills and knowledge once back in their home village, which can further result in community-scale adaptation, leading to broader transformations.

In sum, development and adaptation imperatives can be supported by the translocal social resilience enabled by mobile people, but requires structural support. And yet caution is needed not to uncritically strive for development and adaptation, including via temporary and circular labour mobility schemes, both because of and ‘in spite of ongoing economic and social turmoil’ (Felli & Castree, Citation2012, p. 1). While labour migration might address the dual but inter-related aims of development and adaptation, it is imperative that mobile people and populations are not expected to bear the burden of responding to socioeconomic pressures and anthropogenic climate change. This shifts attention away from structural contexts and causes of economic inequalities and socioecological risk and focuses on mobile people’s social resilience and capacity to adapt. What is needed is global sociopolitical equality and rapid transition to carbon neutral economies. These are big aims, but important to note and require global initiative and political will to facilitate urgent socioecological transformation.


The research reported on in this article is funded by the Australian Research Council Linkage Project ‘Transformative human mobilities in a changing climate’ (LP170101136). The authors thank the Solomon Island seasonal workers who have given them their time and shared their stories. They are grateful for the assistance provided by Goopy Parke-Weaving, Kennedy Roga, and Rolland Sade for facilitating connections with the Solomon Island seasonal workers and/or providing language interpretation during interviews.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest is reported by the authors.

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Olivia Dun

Olivia Dun is a Research Fellow in the School of Geography, The University of Melbourne and the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland, and is an Honorary Associate Fellow at the University of Wollongong. She is a human geographer with a background in environmental science, migration studies and international development. ORCID ID: 0000-0002-3660-6827.

Celia McMichael

Celia McMichael is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Geography, The University of Melbourne. She is a social scientist and health geographer with a research background in migration, displacement and resettlement. ORCID ID: 0000-0002-4572-602X.

Karen McNamara

Karen McNamara is an Associate Professor in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland. She is a human geographer that is broadly interested in the interactions between people’s livelihoods, development pathways and environmental change. ORCID ID: 0000-0002-4511-8403.

Carol Farbotko

Carol Farbotko is a Research Scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). A human geographer, her research interests lie at the intersection of environmental change, cultural change and human security. ORCID ID: 0000-0001-8257-2085.


1. Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

2. We note that COVID-19 pandemic has significantly disrupted the normal operation of this programme.

3. Throughout this paper, these participants are referred to variously as migrants, participants, and/or workers.

4. Choiseul, Guadalcanal, Makira, Malaita, New Georgia and Santa Isabel.

5. Approximately AU$7,000-AU$14,000 (June 2020).

6. We note this intention was articulated prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

7. The Solomon Islands Support Services Program for labour mobility is managed by Pasifiki HR and fully funded by the Australian Government.

8. The noni plant Morindacitrifolia L (Noni) ‘has been used in folk remedies by Polynesians for over 2000 years,and is reported to have a broad range of therapeutic effects’ (Wang et al., Citation2002, p. 1127).

9. One worker did not indicate whether he sent remittances.


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