Recently, Mark Zirnsak travelled to the Pacific to contribute to a meeting on guest workers in Australia. He was interviewed about his trip for this month’s JustAct.
Q: Please tell our readers about your recent trip to the Solomon Islands, why you were there and what impact it may have on Pacific Islanders.
A: The meeting in the Solomon Islands was between the governments of the Pacific countries with the governments of Australia and New Zealand to discuss the programs in Australia and New Zealand that bring workers in to work temporarily in both countries. The Pacific Island countries have growing problems with unemployment. For example, the Solomon Islands Government spoke about how there were 18,000 people reaching working age each year in the Solomon Islands and only around 3,000 new jobs are created each year. For many of the Pacific countries there are few opportunities for economic development to bring in money to fund things like schools and health care clinics. Therefore, having people go overseas to work and send money back to the Pacific countries is a major source of revenue for these countries and benefits the people working and their families.
I currently am notified by the Commonwealth Department of Jobs and Small Business every time a group of workers from the Pacific comes in on the Seasonal Worker Program in Australia to work on farms or in hospitality. I try to link the workers in with local churches if they wish to do so, for support and social connection.I was at the meeting in the Solomon Islands to feed in my experience of the program in Australia.
Q: Why is this issue of importance to the Uniting Church?
A: The Uniting Church has a strong partnership with churches in the Pacific and has a long standing concern for addressing poverty. The Uniting Church has also opposed racism, and people from the Pacific too often face racism in rural Australia.
We have tried to ensure that the people from the Pacific get decent treatment while working in Australia. Ideally the Australian farmers should get reliable workers to fill jobs they cannot find Australians to do and the people from the Pacific get to go home with around $10,000 at the end of six months for their families. People from the Pacific returning home with that amount of money have often used it to provide better education for their children, build better homes and set up their own small business in the Pacific.
Q: In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of the seasonal worker visa program in Australia?
A: When the programs work well, the people from the Pacific gain much needed money and they often pick up skills while in Australia. They can also make meaningful friendships with members of the Australian community and their employer. Some employers have gone to the Pacific to visit the villages where the people working for them have come from.
On the negative side, since the Seasonal Program started in 2012 there have been 14 deaths of people from the Pacific on the program. Some have been in car accidents and others from health conditions. In some cases the Australian labour hire company or the farmer have ripped the people from the Pacific off, usually through over-charging on accommodation and transport. In the worst case we have dealt with the workers were only clearing $50 a week despite working more than full-time. However, the Department of Jobs and Small Business have increased their oversight of the program and such cases of exploitation would appear to be becoming rare.
Q: What is the main interest of the National Farmers Federation on this issue?
A: The National Farmers Federation (NFF) claims to represent the interests of farmers. Farmers do have a great need for people to work on the farms, especially for farms of fruit and vegetables at harvest time. However, in my opinion the NFF has worked to provide cover for farmers engaged in criminal activity on farms, resisting reforms that would help weed out those farmers that exploit and mistreat the people working on their farms.
The NFF does not support an expansion of the Seasonal Worker Program to cover the shortage of people working on the farms and is instead lobbying for a new agricultural visa that would have less safeguards for people coming from overseas against exploitation.
Q: What do the Pacific Island nations have to gain from this program?
A: The Pacific Island nations gain income from the money people bring home. At the moment, money from their people working overseas is the main source of income for Fiji, Samoa, Timor Leste, Tonga and Vanuatu.
Q: What is life like in Australia for seasonal workers working in agriculture? Are there any outstanding differences between backpackers that use agricultural work to extend their visas and Pacific Islander workers that come over on the seasonal visa? What other types of workers undertake work in agriculture?
A: There are four main groups that work on farms. Local Australian workers, who have become fewer over time, which has been a combination of the high prevalence of low (often illegally low) pay on farms and hard work. Then there are the people on the Seasonal Worker Program, who at the moment numbered nearly 8,500 in the last year. Then there are over 35,000 backpackers who get their visa extended by a year if they work 88 days on a farm and the farmer signs off on the work. Finally there are tens of thousands of people working illegally on farms, usually having a tourist visa. There are organised trafficking rings that trick thousands of people from Malaysia to come and work illegally in Australia.
Each of these groups gets exploited to varying degrees. Those working illegally usually are subject to the greatest exploitation, as they fear the employer will report them to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection if they do not comply with whatever the employer wants them to do.
The people on the Seasonal Worker Program have the greatest number of safeguards against exploitation, except they are tied to the employer that brings them into Australia. They cannot change employers and the employer can have them removed from Australia at any time. This has made people on the program open to exploitation for fear they will be removed from Australia.
Backpackers have the option to leave the farm any time they want. That said, many put up with illegal treatment to get the second year on their visa. Women backpackers have been subjected to sexual assault and exploitation, especially on remote farms where they cannot easily leave.
Q: What other advocacy work has the Justice and International Mission cluster been involved in on this issue?
A: The Justice and International Mission cluster has worked with the Department of Jobs and Small Business to make sure the safeguards on the Seasonal Worker Program work. We have also been part of a Labour Trafficking Working Group of the Attorney General’s National Roundtable on Human Trafficking and Slavery. The Working Group was made up of government officials, the Australian Federal Police, Border Force, the Fair Work Ombudsman and anti-slavery groups such as ourselves. The Working Group has produced a report with recommendations for the Minister for Justice to help stamp out exploitation of people coming to Australia temporarily to work.
We have campaigned for labour hire businesses to have to be licensed, so that it will be possible to know who is behind the businesses and hold them to account for any exploitation of the people they employ. The Victorian and Queensland Governments have introduced labour hire licensing schemes.
We have also campaigned for laws to protect whistleblowers that expose criminal activities by private businesses, which would include on farms and by labour hire companies. Such protection is currently lacking. The first step towards whistleblower protection for people working for private business is currently before the Senate, but the government has not brought forward the Bill for debate for nearly a year since they introduced it.
Q: What can our readers living in rural areas do to help with the issue of exploitation of agricultural workers and/or seasonal workers?
A: Our members should seek to befriend people working in their area from overseas. Some congregations have provided great support to people working in Australia from overseas. This has included involving them in church services, taking them on picnics, taking them on shopping trips, helping them with accommodation and with navigating life in Australia. Some congregations have held BBQs for backpackers in their town to make them feel welcome and to support them.
If our supporters become aware of any allegations of exploitation, they should report such allegations to us for further investigation and we can also pass them on to the appropriate authorities.
We will continue our climate change campaigning work including protection of the Great Barrier Reef. You may have heard in recent news that The Great Barrier Reef Foundation has been given a record-breaking grant from the Federal Government, even though this foundation has been under scrutiny for not taking a stand against climate change.
Environmental groups say cutting carbon emissions and stopping new coal mines would be more effective than this grant.
One third of the reef is already dead and yet, after Cyclone Debbie, Adani got a retrospective licence to increase the pollution they release into the ocean. They exceeded it by 800%, polluting the reef with toxic coal slurry from their Abbot Point Port into The Great Barrier Reef. Adani was aware that this water was highly polluted and likely to cause harm to the environment. Alarmingly, Adani also has obtained a water licence that allows the mining giant unlimited access to Australia’s precious groundwater for 60 years. This is highly concerning given the current drought situation in NSW and Queensland and our future water supply.
We urge the government to stop the Adani group from developing the Carmichael coal mine. This month’s newsletter includes a postcard that you and your community can take action on. If you would like more copies of the postcard please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In this current climate of fear mongering and election cycles, the Justice Cluster is looking at ways we can better support people in our culturally and linguistically diverse communities. We have campaigned on issues relating to diversity and inclusion in the past and will continue to do so. Part of this effort also includes listening to people’s stories and learning from them how we can best help.
Afadang is a young South Sudanese woman who has lived in Australia for more than 10 years. She occasionally attends Uniting Church worship with her community and works at the Twich Women’s Sewing Collective, which was established by a small group of women from the Twich community of South Sudan to support inter-cultural communication, cooperation, and establish opportunities for education and employment. Afadang is also completing her studies to become a nurse.
She met Bradon French, the Intergenerational Ministry Youth worker, through Somers Camp, where she’s been a leader for 6 years. Afadang describes herself as a social justice warrior, so was happy to be interviewed for this edition of the JustAct.
Born in Khartoum, Sudan, she and her family moved to Egypt when she was 4 years old due to the war in her home country. The family arrived in Australia in 2004 when she was just 7 years old. She remembers being on a ship and arriving in Egypt, and the racism the Sudanese community faced there. Afadang recalls walking down the street and hearing children yelling out “chocolate chocolate”, while older people in the community could not find jobs and had things thrown at them.
“Arriving in Australia was very different and weird, how people greeted each other, even learning English was difficult. Fitting in was difficult” says Afadang.
She went to an English language centre before going to primary school, but didn’t understand jokes that kids would make even after she learned English.
Many of her family members are still in South Sudan and Kenya, as the family here in Australia work hard to help them.
“It’s very difficult because you are always worrying about them, and there is a sense of privilege because we are lucky to be here, we have to work and try to help our families back home. Mum has applied to have the rest of the family brought over here and it has been rejected several times” she states.
Afadang wants people in Australia to get to know the South Sudanese people for who they truly are.
I asked her how the current racist rhetoric against African young people has affected her and her community. She replied: “There are a lot of kids lashing out and feeling attacked by the media. They feel like they don’t really belong in this country even though they were born here. They are told they don’t belong and are not welcome here. Negativity towards young Africans on social media has an emotional impact on kids and yet they are expected to have the emotional maturity to deal with this.”
“They can’t just be expected to not react or not be affected by this” explains Afadang.
“I take public transport a lot and have noticed in the last six months, as a black young person, you get more people staring at you. I can feel people looking at me and they move their bags away from me. I have seen a Sudanese guy sit next to a white guy on the train and the white guy just got up and moved. There are more bold racists attacks and politicians make it seem like it’s ok to act that way and yell racial slurs. The media portrayal of young Africans as gang members does have an everyday impact” she says.
When asked about her community’s mental wellbeing, Afadang was concerned about her younger siblings and friends.
“We have all been impacted, I don’t feel safe going out anymore. On a train I feel anxiety over a possible racist attack. I constantly worry about my younger siblings. For example my younger brother, who is very tall, could be seen as threatening despite him being so peaceful.”
Afadang has noticed that the media focus on the African gang issue has resurfaced after being dormant for a while. “People don’t see this. It was quiet for months and then the African gang problem came back right before the election.”
When asked what she would say to a Victorian who is afraid of gangs, she said “We don’t even know where these gangs are! All this talk about African gangs from Sudan, and we as a community are very tightly knit, and we don’t see these gangs.”
Finally I asked Afadang what we can do as a church and social justice advocates to support young African people facing these issues. Her answer was a clear list of practical steps everyone can take part in: “Keep listening to the South Sudanese community who are telling you they are affected by the media’s constant belittling and vilifying. Listen to them and stand up for them. Be supportive; call people out when they are being racists; talk to your friends; and correct people when they say there is a gang problem.”
This year’s social justice convention will include a focus on the issue of violence in communities and how marginalised groups are affected by it. If you would like to attend please follow this link to register for the social justice convention.
Save the Date: Justice and International Mission Unit Convention
When: Saturday October 27th
Place: Centre for Theology and Ministry
29 College Crescent, Parkville 3052
The Justice and International Mission Unit mourns the loss of Jill Ruzbacky who died on Sunday April 8th from complications relating to heart surgery that took place eight months ago. Jill had been in hospital since the surgery.
For anyone who missed the great speakers at this year's JIM convention or who would like to listen again, the video is now available.
Joe Camelleri offers us a big picture perspective on what's driving division in our world today.
Monica Melanchton offers us a Indian feminist biblical perspective on our theme building bridges not walls.
Anam Javed offers a personal perspective about what it is like being a young Muslim in today's world.
Each year the Justice and International Mission Unit receives feedback from its supporters about how you would like to be resourced. Your thoughts help shape our work and makes the church's voice louder and more effective by focusing our efforts. The Unit is open to working on new issues if enough people wish to be resourced on them. For more info and a list of current issues, please click here.
World Environment Day is celebrated each year on the 5 June. This year's resource is now available. It contains reflections on the lectionary readings for June 5, liturgy and ideas for all age worship, stories from around the Uniting Church, theological reflections from Asian, Pacific Islands and Aboriginal perspectives. Download your free copy here.