The fruit pickers: inside Australia’s seasonal worker program – a photo essay | Australia news

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We first started reporting for this story in early 2019. Back then the plan was to meet the people coming to Australia every year, for up to nine months at a time, to pick Australia’s produce. What were they sacrificing to do so, and why?

In 18 months the story changed dramatically. When Covid-19 shut Australia’s borders and grounded global flights, the seasonal worker program was thrown into disarray. Long months passed and Australia’s borders stayed closed, an economic nightmare loomed, and the harvest seasons rolled in – with few people around to pick the fruit.

Filipe Tomas Da Costa Freitas working at Mountford Berries in Longford, Tasmania

More than 20,000 people have entered Australia through the seasonal worker program since the pilot began in 2008, and it’s now open to residents from Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Numbers were increasing every year; it had become an indispensable workforce for Australia’s agricultural industry and an economic boon for some Pacific communities.

The program is not uncontroversial. At one end of the spectrum it is seen as Australia’s greatest form of foreign aid, which simultaneously fills a domestic workforce shortage. At the other end it’s a system ripe for exploitation that has been associated with several deaths. There is no suggestion that any of the farms that Guardian Australia visited or photographed for this article have been subject of such complaints or allegations.

Guardian Australia interviewed dozens of workers and growers in northern Tasmania and in Victoria’s Shepparton region, who were almost overwhelmingly positive about the opportunities the program brought, but but also spoke of high personal costs.

Single mothers had left their children behind to be cared for by grandparents or siblings, marriages had fallen apart, new romances had bloomed and failed, and many people were separated from the traditions, culture and community of their home.

“This is a life-changing opportunity for us”

It’s a bright and clear morning in Cressy outside of Launceston, and music is blasting from a speaker buried beneath boxes of fruit on a trolley. Two young women dance and have a giggle, while feverishly picking and packing berries from the rows of vines stretching for 35 hectares around us. Hailing from various tropical islands in the Pacific, everyone’s rugged up against the mild chill of a Tasmanian summer.

Petulisa Motulalo was one of the first Tongan women to come to Burlington Berries farm in Cressy, south of Launceston in Tasmania

The berry industry is worth some $80m a year to the state of Tasmania, and Burlington Berries alone hires hundreds of workers from more than 30 countries to cover their October to June season. When we ask growers what happens if the workers program stops, the common answer is: so does Australia’s supply of berries.

Primarily Timorese, ni-Vanuatu and Tongans, the workers at the berry farms of this region are in their early 20s to early 40s. Some are here for the first time, while others are clocking in their third season, well-practised in speedy picking to bring home as much money as possible. It’s hard and physical work, for a guaranteed minimum of 30 hours a week, and taxed at a flat 15%.

A seasonal worker tips strawberries into a bucket

It’s a significant interruption to life and so people want to work as many hours as possible. Lavenda Aiseke, a 24-year-old Tongan supporting her parents and siblings, says she’ll be returning for as long as the growers will take her.

Manuela Dos Santos, a single mother mother from Timor-Leste, has left her daughters with her parents.

“When we speak, they are crying but they understand me because they know I’m the one being strong for them,” Dos Santos says. “Sometimes they will miss me or sometimes say, ‘It’s all right, Mum.’”

Manuela Dos Santos working on the Hillwood Berries site in Tasmania

Dos Santos wants to send her girls, now five and eight, to college one day. “I love the job,” she tells us. “It’s not hard for me and I earn money, then go back. I want to improve my business, and to take care of my siblings who want schooling, and my parents. And I want to buy land for myself to build a house because I have two kids.”

Antonio Pinto, a 29-year old Timorese man, travelled to Australia from his village in Viveque for the third time in 2019, leaving a two-year-old son at home. He says “this is a life-changing opportunity for us”.

In Orrvale, Victoria, 35-year-old Togi Ugapo from the Samoan island of Savaii and 41-year-old Leleiga Fetui from Falease’ela both support young children and parents back home. Ugapo has bought a car, started building a new home and plans to improve the family farm. After four seasons, Fetui has funded a new car and a family-run milk bar business, and has dreams of buying a fishing boat to increase the family’s income. For him and his wife, the sacrifices give their sons a better life.

Leleiga Fetui and Togi Ugapo

  • Leleiga Fetui, left, from Falease’ela, Samoa, is on his fourth visit. Togi Ugapo from the island of Savaii, western Samoa, is on his second

A study of the program’s pilot phase from 2008 to 2012 found workers’ remittances were increasing household incomes in their home countries by almost 40%. In 2013 personal remittances made up almost 20% of Samoa’s GDP.

“In Samoa there’s no factories or anything like that – they rely on coconuts and taro but you can’t get that all the time, and mother nature comes and destroys the crops,” says Pastor Napota Simaika, a Shepparton resident and a Samoan community leader who acts as a go-between for growers and Samoan workers. His brother and son are among the local workers.

Suifua and Siniva (Leleiga’s mother and wife) are taking a short break with some sweet pastries.

“I’m trying to help more people [come here], because the government has got maybe 5,000 people who want to come over.”

The appetite for the program is huge but how the workers are recruited varies between farms and supply countries.

Employers must be approved by the Australian government and are given strict guidelines surrounding employment conditions and pastoral care. Some growers become approved employers and recruit directly, while others go through third-party employment agencies that take on more of the responsibilities for workers.

In Timor-Leste the program is government-administered and is so popular that senior officials tell us they would happily send as many people as Australia is willing to take. In other countries it’s more ad hoc, which has brought some problems in terms of access and favouritism, and we hear allegations of program administrators in the supply countries giving sought-after places to family.

Seniel Ben

Kim Slater says her Launceston company, Linx employment, takes an active role in recruitment and pastoral care. Staff travel to Vanuatu to interview workers, connecting them with community groups and services once here. She says they have pushed for more women, which was met with some resistance from community leaders who thought women should stay home. “But we sort of really took the stance that it was a great confidence builder for women.”

Once in Australia the workers are helped to connect with local services and churches, but again it varies and, in some cases, Union Aid Abroad says employers allow community groups to effectively subsidise their pastoral care obligations.

In Orrvale Simaiki acts as a father figure and, given that most of the worker community are Samoan, he feels a responsibility to take care of them, especially the young men who “enjoy the lifestyle” too much.

Pastor Napota Simaik

  • Pastor Napota Simaika, a resident of Shepparton, is a community leader who helps orchard workers. Photograph: Darren James

“Everybody has to come to church,” he says, laughing. “Sometimes the boys will feel sad and I’ll say, ‘Don’t sit at home, it will make it feel worse.’”

It keeps people connected to their community and their culture, he says.

“I think that’s the thing – they should be proud of who they are, and they should bring their culture, and come here and stay close to the community. Otherwise they start forgetting their community and look at the influence of the lifestyle here.”

A man standing at fruit picking accommodation

  • Morres Kaltaupa, from Vanuatu, at the accommodation provided by his employer at a Jeftomson apple orchard near Shepparton. Photograph: Darren James

The overwhelming complaint from growers – pre-Covid – was the red tape involved in becoming and staying approved. They must do labour market testing before hiring program workers to ensure the hires are a supplement to Australian employment, not a replacement. But some say it’s a waste of time because local hires and backpackers – who are working their 88 days to get a visa extension – don’t seem to stick around. In 2018 the World Bank recommended Australia scrap the backpacker regional work requirement and expand the seasonal worker program.

But, despite the red tape, a 2016 joint parliamentary committee inquiry into the program heard exploitation of program participants was “common”.

“Complaints include the provision of substandard accommodation, deductions of up to 60% of wages for lodging and board, long hours and excessive or unpaid overtime, and lack of access to health care,” Union Aid Abroad said.

Worker accommodation

The NGO says some conditions amount to modern slavery. Once they are in a job the workers have few choices – they largely stay where the grower has organised, and must pay back the cost of it, as well as their flights and sometimes visas, insurance and other costs – before they draw a full income from the picking.

News reports have revealed workers being charged more than $1,000 a week to sleep on a couch. Others have found a dangerous lack of care, alleged abuse and intimidation, and reported workers surviving by eating the food they are meant to pick. Some have taken legal action over their treatment. Others have died, with their deaths landing before state coroners to examine an alarming dearth of pastoral and healthcare.

The negative press made some growers wary of the media in Tasmania, where they insist their industry is too small for anyone to get away with exploitation.

“I think all of the approved employers here take the responsibilities around it … really, really seriously,” Slater says. “The fact that there’s such a valuable contributor to your business, you’d be silly to put it at risk.”

The workers we meet in Tasmania are all aware of the horror stories but few have major complaints of their own, except for the cost of sometimes crowded accommodation. But post-Covid, both growers and workers tell us they’ve heard of worrying conditions from their former colleagues who found work interstate.

Asked about the allegations of exploitation, some of which were in the Shepparton region, Simaiki says he thinks those situations are mostly connected to contractors, rather than growers who do the work to become approved employers. He says some workers “want shortcuts” but he believes the accommodation and pay for his crew are fair.

The 35-hectare Burlington Berries farm has on-site accommodation blocks for the majority of its workers, and Libby Sutherland, the farm’s bubbly and enthusiastic recruitment officer, also shows us basic but comfortably refurbished cottages a few kilometres away where a dozen or so workers live – men in one house, women next door.

Some of the seasonal workers at their accommodation at Burlington Berries

Another farm, Hillwood Berries, has its workers housed at a hotel north of Launceston, a sprawling complex in faux “Grand Tudor” style. Some workers share hotel rooms but a large group are in makeshift dorms in the venue’s function halls, with temporary dividers creating rooms. Everyone eats catered meals together at long tables in a dark and quirky dining room.

Over dinner dozens of workers dish the dirt on what it’s like to be part of this multicultural, temporary community.

It’s something between a workplace, with all its office politics, and a school or college camp with all its drama. There are romances, power plays, deep friendships and bitter rivalries. Several women, including senior group leaders, say they’ve had to push back against some sexism and harassment from male colleagues.

One of the women at Hillwood Berries in her bunk

Older women with a few seasons under their belt are over the drama – they’ve seen affairs form and fail around them, seen fresh young egos blow in on their first season and get caught up in a party scene. The emotions are amplified by deep homesickness. They’re not here for fun, they just want to make their money and go home.

And then Covid

We had intended to follow people like Dos Santos, Pinto and Aiseke back home to their communities to see what impact their earnings and their absence was having.

But then the pandemic hit.

People who had relied on the work and planned their futures around the income suddenly found themselves on flights home to unemployment and lockdowns. Those who stayed behind found work on other farms when their usual season ended but were separated from their families by oceans, and with no idea when they might be reunited. The Australian government extended visas for up to a year and allowed workers to move to other farms.

Children play with a wheelbarrow

  • On the left is Sauiluma, Leleiga’s son, with local children at his family’s shopfront in Falease’ela, Samoa. Photograph: Chikara Yoshida

“We harvested through the first wave and on the fly had to adopt policies that didn’t exist for global pandemics,” Simon Dornauf, the manager at Hillwood Berries tells Guardian Australia. Workers were redeployed to far north Queensland, South Australia and Victoria.

“They’ll be able to make three years worth of income in 18 months, and I think they’re happy with that but it’s been tough to not to get back and see families and children,” he says.

Dornauf says Hillwood is staying in touch with group leaders to make sure everyone is OK, but some of the more remote placements don’t seem to be as hands on with the pastoral care as it’s been in Tasmania.

Because they stayed in Australia, most of Hillwood’s regular workers will be back for the next harvest. Dornauf concedes they’ll be tired after working back-to-back seasons.

“We’ll nurse them through this season and try to take the load of them and spread it on some local guys we’re trying to recruit as well.”

Strawberries at the Hillwood farm

Dornauf is buoyed by news of a trial reopening of the program that saw 160 seasonal workers from Vanuatu sent to Darwin for the mango season. The federal government said its Northern Territory counterparts and the industry had covered the flights and quarantine costs, reported to be about $100,000 for the charter plane and $2,500 a worker for quarantine.

Hillwood Berries has signed up for when Tasmania can bring the workers in, although he doesn’t know yet how much the flights will be – the business will be paying for everything above the workers’ capped cost – or which supply countries will opt back in. The workers will have to quarantine, which he says they’ll do at the motel complex. Asked what happens if anyone in that hall dormitory gets sick, he says that’s unlikely given how unaffected by the virus the islands have been, but the farm will be doing daily temperature checks and isolating anyone with symptoms.

More than a year after we met, life is now very different for some of the workers.

Antonio Pinto, stayed in Australia. He found work on a mango farm up north and, while he misses his children, he has been able to make much more money.

“The money … is to support my family, to pay for my sister and brothers’ school, and also to build them a house in my village,” he says. “Last year when I went back to Timor I helped my father and my mother and built a house for them.”

Antonio Pinto

Speaking over the phone from Dili, Manuela Dos Santos tells us she caught one of the last flights home amid the panic of the early pandemic months. She sounds unsure whether to count herself lucky, since she can’t make an income now. At the time of speaking, Dili is in lockdown with schools closed, and she can’t return to her former job.

“I have a little business but it’s all stopped because there are no markets, everything is closed,” she says. In the meantime she’s enjoying the extra time with her daughters, even though they are struggling financially. She finally bought her land but work on her house has had to pause.

Dos Santos is hoping to come back to Australia where she has also left a fiance – a Tongan man she met on the farm, who is awaiting Australian citizenship.

“We decided he wants to stay in Australia and I can come and go as a seasonal worker.”

Manuela Dos Santos in her hairdressing shop in Dili

Unions and labour organisations argue that while there are benefits to both sides in the arrangement, to truly help our Pacific neighbours we should be creating jobs in the Pacific, not making migration a necessity for work opportunities. Nothing has brought that into sharper relief than the pandemic.

While Australia’s Pacific neighbours have so far escaped the worst of the outbreak, the shutdown has had a huge impact. Without any chance to prepare, workers lost their income, and some couldn’t access their superannuation in Australia. Their own governments were no more able to give extra support than before the shutdown.

A few weeks later Dos Santons is in touch again, and she’s wondering if there’s any news about flights restarting for Timorese workers. There isn’t.

“I’m OK,” she says. “I’m frustrated here also because during this pandemic, everything is hard.”

Travel and research was supported by funding from the Melbourne Press Club’s Michael Gordon Fellowship program

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The fruit pickers: inside Australia’s seasonal worker program – a photo essay | Australia news

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