Lucy Felix was working on her garden in the village of Eton, Vanuatu, when she got an unexpected call about opportunities at Northern Territory farming.
The main point:
- Workers can earn up to $ 25 per hour – about nine times the minimum wage in Vanuatu
- Vanuatu is one of the few countries that has no confirmed coronavirus cases
- Tasmania is watching the trial and considering a travel bubble with Pacific nations
Single mothers have been selected by the Vanuatu Department of Labor to harvest mangoes in Australia during the coronavirus pandemic.
He was shocked by the offer.
Vanuatu’s border has been tightly closed since March in response to COVID-19, and he doesn’t think he will be allowed to leave the country.
But he didn’t want to miss this opportunity. Workers like Felix earn up to $ 25 per hour on Australian farms – about nine times the minimum wage of $ 2.70 in Vanuatu.
And like many other Pacific seasonal workers, Felix relies on income from a seasonal worker program to pay for his children’s school fees.
Other workers have used the money to pay for their own education, family wedding ceremonies or to invest in new businesses in Vanuatu.
Ms Felix believes the timing couldn’t have been better.
Sales from his fruit and vegetable stalls in Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila, are suffering, a decline he accuses of the COVID-19 crisis.
“Vanuatu has laid off a lot of people in their regular jobs, so there you have it [are] there isn’t a job everyone has to pay for their family, “said Felix.
He said the Australian experiment was an opportunity for him to “help things get back” and complete his vision – to start an agricultural business in his village.
But the decision was not easy, and Felix said he really missed his 13-year-old daughter, who was being cared for by her grandmother.
“They know why I’m here, so I hope they understand and I can’t wait to get back home and see them,” said Felix.
Ms Felix is one of 162 participants in the Federal Government’s pilot seasonal worker program.
The program aims to return Pacific seasonal workers to Australian farms during the coronavirus pandemic.
After spending 14 days in hotel quarantine, last week Felix and other Ni-Vanuatu men and women started working on farms in rural NT.
Their work can be grueling. Workers can spend hours in the hot sun peeling mango trees.
Other workers at packaging sheds filled hundreds of trays with fruit, ready to be shipped to supermarkets across Australia.
They help fill labor shortages on Australian farms and are expected to be in the country for at least nine months.
‘We don’t know what’s going to happen out there’
Vanuatu is one of the few countries that has no confirmed cases of the coronavirus, and some workers fear they may become infected while working in Australia.
“We are happy to come, but we are afraid too,” said Royson Watas, a worker from the island of Santo in northern Vanuatu.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen out there.”
Mr Watas said he had second thoughts about leaving his family and fishing business behind during the pandemic.
He is very concerned about returning to Vanuatu after his contract expires.
Some seasonal workers have been stuck in Australia without a job and there is no way to leave the country afterward Border restrictions were imposed by the Vanuatu Government in March.
But Watas said the risk of catching the coronavirus was low because the Northern Territory had no active cases of COVID-19, and he felt comfortable working on the farm.
Her employer, mango farmer Barry Albrecht, says she is also happy to have Pacific workers back.
“We need money to carry them, with quarantine fees and all that. But we feel they are worth it,” said Albrecht.
“They’re very easy to get along with: polite, polite, clean.”
The Northern Territory Farmers Association hopes more Vanuatu workers will be able to join this first group, to help with the harvest season.
Other states are also considering creating a similar program, to allow workers from Pacific countries without confirmed cases of the coronavirus to work on Australian farms.
Peak body Tasmanian Fruit Growers said they were observing the results of the Northern Region trial and taking into account the development of a travel bubble with Pacific nations.
“That’s really good news for us in Vanuatu and low-income people,” said Watas.
Workers have ‘big plans’ for getting money
Lester David of Port Vila also hopes the seasonal worker pilot program will be expanded.
The 36-year-old bus driver has been told he is on a list of workers who will join other workers in the Northern Territory after the second flight has been approved by the Australian and Vanuatu governments.
Like many other workers now in Australia, Mr David has worked on Northern Territory mango farms before, and used the money he earned to pay for two marriages for his family and to buy buses for his business.
She hopes that by returning to work in Australia, she can earn enough money to finish building her house, pay for her wedding and pay for management accounting courses.
David wonders why Australians don’t do this farm work than men and women from Vanuatu.
But he believes the answer is simple.
“Are Australians willing to do this work?” he says.
“I have big plans ahead of me, so I’m willing to work hard to achieve them.”
The Vanuatu Prime Minister’s Office said Australian and Vanuatu officials had discussed the possibility of sending more workers to Northern Territory mango plantations.