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You think those SWP approved employers (AEs) really care about our families? No they don’t!

They don’t really care about relations between workers, their spouses and children back home. All they seem to care about are their businesses and the profits they make by cutting copra (to use a common expression in Vanuatu) on the backs of our ni-Vanuatu workers. The Government needs to address this issue rather urgently. While the pressure is high to pick those fruits, our poor families break apart due to conflicting policies between Port Vila and Canberra. Not all families, but possibly hundreds. And that’s bad enough to warrant decisive action from authorities concerned. This article is specifically about the Seasonal Worker Program (SWP) and the conflicting policies between the two countries which ultimately undermine Vanuatu’s own labour policies and laws.

Benefits of Seasonal Work

Nobody’s questioning the benefits of seasonal work. The SWP has raked in millions into the Vanuatu economy, more so rural Vanuatu where economic activity has been scarce and very limited. Seasonal work has contributed immensely to job creation, employment, revenue generation, rural development, family livelihoods, land purchases/new homes, vehicles, solar systems, school fees, clothes, food, etc. Economically the SWP has been a fantastic program to Pacific Island Countries, including Vanuatu. But it has done very poorly when it comes to recognising and addressing the social issues affecting our workers’ homes and families. This blunder has to end forthwith. How can they possibly justify the breaking up of our families while they guard theirs with their lives? This is unthinkable, unethical and is totally absurd.

SWP Employers’ families vs Our families

Whose family is more important than whose? The employers’, ours or both? Browse the websites of those farms (big, medium and small), and the most common tradition you see on the landing page is the farmer and his wife and kids picking strawberries (or whatever fruits the farm specialises in). The narrative you read on the introductory pages normally carry phrases such as ‘This is a Family Farm’. Smiling children. Happy faces. Family-oriented business handed down from past generations. Yes, its all about THEIR families! How about ours? Don’t our families matter? Aren’t our families just as important as theirs?

Do they care about the welfare, the happiness and wellbeing of our families – bearing in mind the fact that our workers actually sacrifice months (now years, under Covid-19 travel restrictions), to be away from their beloved spouses and children to earn a living, though most importantly to grow the businesses of those farmers’ families? Do you think they care? You’ll be surprised.

An Email from Hell

The following is a true story. Several workers arrived into Australia in early March 2020. Soon a ‘relationship’ started developing between two workers: a man who has at least 2 kids back home in Vanuatu, and a lady with 3 kids – all expectantly waiting in Vanuatu for dad and mum to return with ‘the money’. That’s what the SWP is principally all about. That’s the bottomline – the money. The Team Leader called one meeting, two meetings, more meetings. The agent called meetings. But the flower over yonder started blooming more and more. Romance grew and eventually they became ‘husband and wife’. The agent raised this as an issue with the Australian Employer. Read below an excerpt of the AE’s email to the local agent in Vanuatu over the issue. It is shocking, but it is the plain truth.

Here’s part of the approved employer’s email, “after our talk with the boys I had a conversation regarding the situation in (name of location withheld) as the person from SWP that came up has visited our…farm in the prior years. She informs me we have no rights or authority as an approved employer to send people home for having an affair. All SWP workers have the same rights as any Australian adult so we cannot tell them who they can or cannot see or sleep with. They are adults and they can make there choices. We will continue to treat them all as adults…”. So, they kept the workers until a fight broke out between the male worker and another worker. One was hospitalised (nearly died!). The romantic couple who became ‘husband and wife’ at the farm had to be repatriated back home due to the fight. The female worker is now fighting a legal battle to try and regain access to her kids due to a restraining order against her.

By its actions, the Employer and authorities concerned have contributed to the breaking up of two homes in the name of “Rights”. The ‘advice’ provided by the said AE actually opens up a big can of worms that needs to be dealt with at the highest level. The AE and the SWP authorities in effect are telling our workers (both single and married) that once they are in Australia, they can actually ignore pre-departure briefings, advices and warnings issued in Port Vila by our Labour Department per our laws and policies relating to the SWP’.

This particular case is only one out of numerous others currently brewing Down Under — in the land of milk and honey.

What Next?

Where do we go from here? Key question is, whose policies/laws stand? Which policies or laws do we uphold – Vanuatu’s or Australia’s or both? In effect, Vanuatu’s laws and policies on seasonal work become redundant and are effectively useless the moment an aircraft touches down on the tarmac at any of the international airports in Australia. That’s what this whole story boils down to.

What our Government needs to do is undertake a ‘full independent evaluation and review of the MOU’ between Port Vila and Canberra, as recently suggested by a high ranking official. Apparently we have four key problems with the SWP: i) policy, ii) governance, iii) implementation and iv) enforcement & compliance.

Vanuatu used to host Labour Mobility Summits in the past and a PAILS Forum in 2016 while the former Commissioner was in office. When will the next Summit be hosted so that issues of concern as highlighted in this article can be addressed? When will Vanuatu review its existing SWP MOU with Australia?

We’ve just celebrated Yumi 41. We need to show others we are capable of taking full control of our own interests rather than be mercilessly lead into an environment we know will wreck havoc with our families and homes in the name of ‘seasonal work and money’. A review of the existing MOU is long overdue.

– Howard Aru is current CEO of the Vanuatu Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (VFIPA) and former Director General of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry, Fisheries, and Biosecurity and the Ministry of Health.

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