The Uniting Church hosted an ecumenical service of lament over the weekend to mourn Pacific guest workers who have died or been injured in the Australian horticultural sector.
Uniting Church in Australia President Stuart McMillan joined members of the Australian Pacific community and representatives of the Salvation Army, Catholic, Baptist, Hillsong, Mormon and other churches at the service, held at Strathfield Uniting Church in Sydney.
More than 4000 Pacific Islanders work in Australia every year as part of the federal government’s seasonal workers program.
In the past six years, 14 men employed under the program have died, including one in Victoria.
Labour hire companies have been accused of widespread exploitation through debt bondage, extreme neglect and severely underpaying workers.
There are also reports of workers being housed in substandard accommodation, including caravans and shipping containers.
“Australians must be vigilant to ensure that modern slavery and forced labour are kept out of our supply chains, both at home and abroad,” Mr McMillan said.
“Our church members have reported slavery-like conditions in Australia and we are gravely concerned for the welfare of all workers in this area.
“Migrant worker schemes have the potential to greatly benefit both Australia and the Pacific. However more checks and balances need to be put in place to prevent exploitation.”
Strathfield Uniting Church minister Rev Alimoni Taumoepeau conducted the service, which was attended by federal workplace minister Craig Laundy.
Family members laid wreathes as part of the service and played video testimonies from those who have suffered injuries.
“We mourn with those who have lost loved ones and for those whose lives have been damaged while harvesting the food for our tables and our export markets,” Mr McMillan said.
“Pacific Island people are a large and important part of the life of the Uniting Church here in Australia and a great blessing in our church. We are in regular contact with our Pacific Church partners and we share this concern for the life and wellbeing of their people.
“Christian communities across Australia need to step up, be vigilant, and offer care and support to our Pacific Island brothers and sisters.”
At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London next week member nations will be encouraged to clamp them on modern slavery in their supply chains.