Workers unions plead with Australia to improve work programmes

The Samoa Workers Congress and Samoa First Union have submitted statements to an Australian inquiry into Australia’s relationship with the Pacific, urging the Government to make changes to the Seasonal Work Programme for the better.

S.W.C. Chair, Gatoloaifaana Tili Afamasaga and S.F.U. senior organiser, Seveoaga Saina Setu, highlight how the pre-departure training is lacking, and that farms employing Samoan workers are not adequately prepared to have people from another culture in their orchards.

Their statements were compiled into a submission by the Union Aid Abroad A.P.H.E.D.A. (Australian People for Health, Education and Development Abroad), which works with the two unions frequently. 

Gatoloai said while she has had positive discussions with the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Labour (M.C.I.L.) on improving pre-departure preparation and making seasonal work programmes better for Samoans, there is still a way to go.

She said workers find the experience of living abroad confusing and stressful and report they did not feel adequately prepared for what life in Australia would be like.

They are often isolated from friends or family from their village also working in Australia, and their employers do not understand their difficulties enough to help them or manage them in a culturally appropriate way. 

The workers don’t understand rent, having large sums deducted from their pay to cover transport (which they feel is more than necessary) and employment contracts, which leads to a host of misunderstandings. 

Gatoloai recommends Australia develop thorough materials about the country, its culture and laws so that M.C.I.L. can translate them and give to workers, to replace the meagre offerings currently being distributed.

“I have personally reviewed the materials and agree with the workers that the current content is very general and not of the needed detail to support orientation for a foreign country,” she said.  

“While we can work on these materials in Samoa the more effective outcome would be for the resources to be prepared about Australia, in Australia and then provided to countries for translation. It may also be the case that there is a need for Australia’s own Government maintains a closer review of the information for quality control.”

S.F.U. senior organiser Seveoaga Saina Setu said the Australian Government should take the lead on ensuring pre-departure training is up to scratch.

“One day is not enough to learn about a foreign country, way of life and its laws,” she said.

“Everyone talks about how working and living in Australia is nothing like they were told. It is not really a training programme but a lot of talking and it does not help with the practical issues that the workers encounter. They say that the key message is from the Government that they must be disciplined.”

The seasonal work programme can be a risky one for Samoan workers, Gataloai says. Mental health and physical health can deteriorate and is often left unchecked, both by the workers themselves and those meant to be responsible for them.

Sometimes the workers pursue new relationships in Australia and don’t return home, breaking up families in the process. And quality accommodation is like a lottery, she adds, with no guarantee of quality, cleanliness or maintenance.

“This is surely an aspect that the Government can regulate and ensure that poor accommodation does not have a negative impact on the health of our workers.”

Seveoaga said another major challenge is when employers disregard Samoan culture in their dealings with workers. 

This often results in grievances that are beyond the worker's ability to deal with, and without a body in Australia to mediate they are left alone with this problem.

“The Samoan way is to talk and listen with respect. It is sometimes difficult to understand the non-Samoan employers who use western ways to deal with their employees and who talk about the law rather than the social good,” she said.

“I have had many meetings with groups and individuals who have worked in Australia and this is the key feedback. They feel unprepared and stressed. Sometimes they do not even understand the weather and are not prepared for cold seasons.”

She also called for employment contracts to be provided in Samoan or at least in simpler English than the legalese the workers cannot understand. 

The two also highlight that the Samoan Government could do more in this area too, from the pre-departure training to the debriefing and monitoring on return. 

S.W.C. intends to ask the Government to establish a new unit inside M.C.I.L. to oversee seasonal work contracts, and to protect workers from a legal standpoint. 

“It is also important that the Samoan Government improve their dialogue with the Australian Government and ensure that there are sources of support for information for both work and social issues,” Seveoaga said.

“It is important that our Government is clear with the local community about the job and what they can and cannot expect. They are responsible to ensure that there are benefits to Samoa as a whole as well as for the workers and their family.

“It is sad but the money is the most important part of the programme. The young men are how the money comes in. It is not just that Australia wants our workers because they are cheaper than Australian workers but our families want them to go because of the money. In both worlds these young men are used but are not central to the consideration of the planning.”

Neither Gatoloai nor Seveoaga wants the S.W.P., nor the New Zealand equivalent the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme (R.S.E.) to end, only to be conducted better, and for workers to return to Samoa unharmed by the experience.

“The only sadness is that we miss our people when they leave us and go overseas to work. We are assured that they will return and come home and that is very important to us because we need that," Gatoloai said. 

“We know they are learning to work differently and experience life in a foreign country and they can bring that learning back to Samoa and teach others. This is an important benefit that will last longer than money. 

“In this way the seasonal workers programmes are a good balance for our community. We cannot afford for all of our young people to leave Samoa and lose our brightest and strongest as we need them in Samoa for our own future.”

The Union Aid Australia submission is one of 36 submissions so far to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.

The inquiry is into strengthening Australia’s relationships with countries in the Pacific region, and it is still accepting submissions until 30 June. 

The committee is also overseeing inquiries into Australia activating greater trade and investment with Pacific island countries, the human rights of women and girls in the Pacific, and in the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for Australia’s foreign affairs, defence and trade.

All submissions are available online.

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