Most Pacific Islanders working in Australia under a government-managed labour scheme are "very satisfied" and earning up to 10 times what they would at home, according to a report by ANU's Development Policy Centre.
In conclusions that challenge long-standing criticisms of the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Scheme (PALMS), the study - based on a survey of 2085 workers and 4241 households in Australia, Tonga, Kiribati and Vanuatu - found the program achieved a high degree of worker satisfaction and significant economic, financial and social benefits flowing to source countries.
Around 30,300 workers found jobs under PALMS last financial year, most in low- and semi-skilled jobs in agriculture, food processing, aged care and hospitality. Under the scheme, businesses can hire Pacific workers to fill vacancies where there are not enough local candidates.
Critics have complained that the scheme has made foreign workers vulnerable to exploitation and concerns have been raised that it could lead to increased marriage breakdowns, child neglect and loss of skills from sending countries.
But report co-author, and deputy director of the Development Policy Centre Ryan Edwards said the evidence gathered for his study did not support these fears.
According to the study, workers laboured on average 46 hours a week and earned $800 a week after tax and deductions like airfares, accommodation and insurance. Around 60 per cent of earnings was saved and sent home.
This income exceeded potential earnings at home by up to four times for those workers coming from Tonga and up to 10 times for the ni-Vanuatu.
According to the study, almost 80 per cent of workers earned as much or more than they expected, though this ratio dropped to little more than 50 per cent among the ni-Vanuatu.
Mr Edwards said remittances from family and community members working overseas were a particularly important source of income in Pacific Island nations, which often had limited formal job opportunities.
Most households surveyed reported that the remittances boosted family finances, strengthened relationships, provided for better educational opportunities for children and increased church contributions.
Mr Edwards said that, in contrast to concerns that having a key family member working overseas was leading to marriage breakdowns and an increased burden on those left behind, "four in five ... workers reported improvements in their relationships with their children, and two-thirds reported improved marital relationships, often thanks to increased income and material goods decreasing arguments ... especially where money stress was previously a source of conflict".
"Overall," he said, "the data present a positive story about the impacts of these schemes on workers, their households, and communities, as well as how workers and people in the Pacific feel about them".
Minister for International Development and the Pacific Pat Conroy said the PALM scheme helped Pacific workers and their communities as well as giving Australian businesses access to "a pool of productive and reliable workers".
Mr Conroy said the government was working to improve conditions for the scheme's workers, including allocating $440 million over several years to strengthen oversight of its operation.
"The government takes a zero-tolerance approach to worker mistreatment and exploitation and is enhancing protections," the minister said. "The government will continue monitoring the PALM scheme and engaging with Pacific governments, workers and employers to ensure it delivers benefits to all participants".