Two years ago, when Celestine Aisa Maino embarked on her first journey to Australia, she had a very simple purpose – to make more money to support her family. “I knew I had to do something to sustain my family,” she recalled. “I knew that with some extra income I could revive a previous family business run by my relatives – growing rice.” Now, looking back, she knows that what she has gained from her travels is more than just financial.
Celestine is from Bereina Town in the Central Province of Papua New Guinea (PNG). In her 40s, she is a mother of three children, and supports her handicapped father and a brother with mental health issues. However, the meagre income she got from selling betel nut wasn’t enough for many expenses, such as fixing the rotting foundations of the family’s house. She thought her family’s difficult life would never improve, until one day she learned about the Australian Seasonal Worker Program.
The programme hires people annually from selected Pacific Island countries and Timor-Leste to work in the horticulture industry for up to six months. Celestine still remembers how thrilled she was when she got the call from the Seasonal Coordination Office. “I was so excited that I would finally get the chance to make money for my family.”
Fruitful work in a new land
Celestine’s new workplace was in Mundubbera, a small town in Queensland, Australia. It was a very large farm, employing more than 500 workers. Her job was mainly picking and packaging fruit. Even though the working hours were very long, Celestine enjoyed her work. She had everything she need to live a comfortable life; a well-equipped caravan to live in, a nice natural environment, and friends from places like Taiwan (China), Japan, France and Tonga. Her favourite activity was to watch rugby matches on weekends. “The best part of the trip was going along to support the PNG seasonal workers who’d formed a rugby team,” Celestine recalls. “Most weekends we would go along and support their games against the local teams. We’d chat with the locals and have a great day”.
New Zealand offers a similar programme. Celestine’s fellow countrywoman, Kila Venakagatu Gutuma worked in an apple farm in Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand. Her work led to many new discoveries. “It was very exciting. I didn’t realize there are ten types of apples,” Kila said. “My favourite is Royal Gala. It’s so crunchy. I ate so many apples when I was there.” Kila would also share with her workmates the free apples, berries, and onions given by her employers.
Saving toward a brighter future
Kila made about 5,000 Australian dollars (AUD) (about US$4,600) in one season, whereas in Papua New Guinea she would have only made about AUD1,000 (about US$930), if she was lucky. Now both Celestine and Kila have some savings that they can use to build a better future when they go back to their country. At the same time, they’ve also upgraded their skills.
“In Australia I learnt valuable skills about farming. For example, I never knew that you should prune or how to use fertilizer,” Celestine said. “Now I practice pruning on the mandarins I grow back home and teach others about the importance of pruning.” Kila took cooking and computer classes in her spare time.
With financial support from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the ILO is working with the Government of PNG to implement a programme (“Strengthening Labour Migration Management in Papua New Guinea and Nauru in the context of the Australia Seasonal Worker Program”) designed to help the government prepare workers better for their departure abroad and their return. This includes training on using their skills and savings to start a small business.
Business awareness training
Both Celestine and Kila took part in a recent pilot training on business awareness as part of the programme. Using participatory methods they learnt how to identify new business opportunities in their communities, to maintain a personal cash flow diary during their time as seasonal workers, and how to grow a small business.
“The development impact of seasonal migration should not be overlooked,” said Director of the ILO Office for Pacific Island countries, David Lamotte. “With structured training and support, workers can be assisted to use their skills, knowledge and savings to start thriving small businesses and continue to benefit from their migration experience”.
The Seasonal Worker Program has also benefited the host countries. Nearly 1,500 workers from Pacific Island countries were accepted by the Australian horticulture industry between 2012 and 2013. “There is a shortage of available labour for our business and our peak seasonal labour demands must be met from outside the district,” said Susan Jenkin, the CEO of Ironback Citrus, Celestine’s employer. “Pacific seasonal workers are now an integral part of our workforce and .… clearly more productive and efficient than our other workers”.
In April, Celestine and Kila embarked on their latest overseas journey. Celestine feels her dream of reviving her family rice-growing business is getting closer and closer. Kila wants to use the trip to save money to acquire more stock for a shop she has opened since becoming a seasonal worker. Both women see a brighter future through properly regulated seasonal migration.