In 2008, the Australian Government initiated a program for people from Pacific Island nations to stay in Australian on short-term visas and fill vital employment gaps in the agricultural industry.
The workers earn money to take back home and gain valuable agricultural skills to introduce into their home communities.
It seemed a win-win arrangement, and in most situations it is.
For the Bombaci family in southern Victoria who produce 90 percent of Australia’s asparagus crop, their annual labour force of over 100 ni-Vanuatu workers, has saved their industry.
The arrangement provides much needed financial support for workers’ families. On average, workers can save $8000 in a few months of crop-picking.
Earnings are used to build a family home, pay school fees or set up a local business.
One ni-Vanuatu who visited a trout project while working on a tomato farm in Victoria returned to his home village on Malekula and established a fish farm where he employs family members and local villagers.
The governments of Vanuatu and Tonga, who supply the majority of workers, last year called for the program to be extended.
However, the program has also been fraught with difficulties.
Over the years, there have been several reports of exploitation and maltreatment with workers complaining that the program’s promises are not fulfilled.
In the worst instances, Islanders have worked excessive hours, stayed in poor accommodation, been charged exorbitant rental rates and returned home without savings.
An ABC investigation into conditions in Victoria uncovered a situation where workers received as little as $9 a week after all the deductions were taken from their pay.
Over the last five years, 12 workers have lost their lives across Australia, including four from Vanuatu.
Although the majority have been due to car accidents, questions have been raised over the support and advice that guest workers receive.
Many workers are vulnerable to the whims and wishes of their employer, and are left largely to themselves to survive the complexities of living in a dramatically different culture.
Knowing that they can be dismissed and sent home penniless in shame, they remain silent when they have requests or cause for complaint.
Last October, the Vanuatu Fellowship in Victoria established a Seasonal Workers Support Group, which works in close connection with Mark Zirnsak and the synod’s Justice and International Mission cluster.
The initiative seeks to generate stronger involvement of local support groups (especially churches) in the post-arrival briefing scheme and the ongoing pastoral care of workers. The group also promotes advocacy, in particular to identify instances of abuse and exploitation.
The Support Group’s membership comprises around 20 people from across Victoria who are passionate about the need to support the workers. This includes two ni-Vanuatu men, residents in Victoria, who provide a valuable cultural bridge between the workers’ home cultures and their farm work environment.
While the government program stipulates pastoral care as a requisite part of the scheme, this task rests in the hands of the employment contractor and very easily falls by the wayside. The Support Group has set out to make sure pastoral care happens.
The group’s priority is to establish relationships with workers as soon as they arrive and to assist them to negotiate the myriad of differences between their homeland and Australian society.
Many of the workers come from village communities, with little or no experience of urban life and limited English.
The Support Group is creating a reference booklet in English and Bislama, including a section on cultural behaviour.
The plan is to make the reference booklet part of the briefing program for workers on arrival and available throughout their time in Australia.
Local churches and community groups are encouraged to establish personal relationships with seasonal workers and provide them opportunities to understand Australian life.
Some workers are becoming regular participants in church worship and enriching congregations by sharing their knowledge of Vanuatu life.
The work of the Vanuatu Seasonal Workers Support Group is in its early days, but already it has become clear that its role is important.
It is among a growing network of church support groups around the country. Uniting Church president Stuart McMillan recently commented that he has been “enormously heartened” by the work of these groups in seeking justice for seasonal workers.
Randall Prior is chair of the Vanuatu Seasonal Workers Support Group.
See the Vanuatu Seasonal Workers Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/groups/SeasonalWorkersVanuatu
You can also contact Randall at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.