Workers from Vanuatu getting a helping hand

Seasonal workers from Vanuatu, with the Reverend Denise Liersch and Don MacRaild OAM. Photo: Liz Bell

Liz Bell

AGRICULTURAL workers from Vanuatu are getting a helping hand to navigate the often confusing rights, obligations and entitlements that come with being seasonal workers.
Seasonal workers are an essential workforce for Australian farms, doing the labour that is crucial to getting fruit and vegetables from farms to consumers.
Local community volunteers, through an association with the Uniting Church, are stepping in to ensure the workers have the information they need to ensure the relationship between seasonal workers and the Australian community continues to benefit all involved.
Through advocacy and relationships with other professionals, the volunteers provide support to help the employees meet the many challenges of working in a foreign environment — including fatigue, mental health issues and isolation from family.
Three of the volunteers, Valencia Creek residents Don and Meg MacRaild, who received OAMs in 2013 for their work with the Vanuatu Prevention of Blindness Project, along with retired farmer and now consultant in the development of a potato industry in Vanuatu, Alan Condron, dropped in to chat with the seasonal workers on Friday at their accommodation in Sale, and to find out how they could be of service.
They were joined by the moderator of the Uniting Church synod of Victoria and Tasmania, Denise Liersch, who is on a tour of Gippsland to connect with local communities and garner more support for the work church members are doing.
The Rev Liersch said the Uniting Church of Australia had a long standing association with the Presbyterian Church in Vanuatu, and as such there was a “real point of connection” between the church and seasonal workers in Australia.
“By building cooperative and good working relationships between government and farmers and supportive Australian groups we can all work together to refine the way the program works for everyone’s benefit,” she said.
Mr MacRaild, who spent years working in Vanuatu with health teams to improve the health and education of villagers, said seasonal workers sometimes found themselves in difficulty in Australia because of vast cultural differences and simple misunderstandings.
“For example, we have had workers who get into trouble because they have bought a car but haven’t understood the process and the paperwork involved,” he said.
“And there are other problems associated with different cultures and customs.
“This particular group of workers was here for six months, but because of COVID they are now here for nine months and are really missing their families and feeling isolated.”
Mr MacRaild said most of the men had left wives and children at home while they tried to save money for their families, and faced severe communication problems and social dislocation.
One worker, who acted as a spokesman for the group, said most of the men were finding it difficult as communication with family back home was irregular because of lack of easy access to telecommunications, and poor reception.
Mr MacRaild, who visits and assists seasonal worker groups around Gippsland, said the workers often needed help with basic things, such as having someone to read and explain their pay slips.
“It’s really important that these workers have access to that information, but another big part of what we try to do is make them feel part of society here — they do an incredibly important job,” he said.
“A lot of shoppers wouldn’t even be aware that most of the vegetables they are buying in the supermarket have been picked by these workers.”