BLACKBIRDING is back in Bundaberg and elsewhere in regional Australia. Where Australians do not want to work in “menial” jobs in horticulture, rural producers have had to look elsewhere for a workforce.
Backpackers have been a standby, but producers wanted a more reliable source of labour. That source is Pacific Islanders, just as it was 150 years ago in the infamous blackbirding era.
Bundaberg region, for example, has a Samoan population of about 150, with more than 50 in Childers and another 15 scheduled to arrive in the near future.
They are part of the commonwealth government’s Seasonal Worker Program, established by the Labor government. At least it got one thing right. The scheme offers employers in the horticulture industry the ability to employ workers from eight selected Pacific Island countries and East Timor when they cannot find enough local labour to satisfy seasonal demand.
While backpackers are transient, Samoans and other Pacific Island workers work for a defined period. The program enables visiting Samoans, and others, to stay and work for six or seven months.
It is that certainty that makes them sought-after workers. The alternative is fruit rotting on the vine or reliance on low-cost, illegal and undocumented labour. The Pacific seasonal workers provide a consistent, reliable, legal alternative workforce.
Mal Forman, mayor of Bundaberg Regional Council is an enthusiastic supporter and informs me that, for example, a local Childers hotel owner is helping bring Samoans to the Childers area. Samoans are working on properties around the Wallaville area between Bundaberg and Childers. Many are playing rugby league with the local team.
The average weekly wage in Samoa is about $40 a week. In Australia, Pacific workers are guaranteed award wages. The wages are a significant opportunity to save money to improve the life of their families.
As inner-city types prattle on about identity and sensitivities and rights and offence and constitutions, in Bundaberg and elsewhere there are crops to be picked.
There is money to be earned, children to rear, rugby to be played. Locals are not worried about skin colour or beliefs, or if they are it is less likely about those who work as those who do not. Work, properly contracted, is the passport to all the rights anyone ever needed.
As for blackbirding, between 1863 and 1904 more than 62,000 Islanders were brought to Queensland from the Solomons, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and other parts of the South Pacific to provide cheap labour.
A small number came from the Polynesian and Micronesian islands such as Samoa, Kiribati and Tuvalu.
Initially, workers were employed on cotton plantations on the Logan River in Brisbane. The sugar plantations on the river plains around Brisbane, Maryborough, Bundaberg, Mackay, Bowen and Cairns drove demand for indentured labour thereafter.
It was not a slave trade, but many were badly treated and some came unwittingly (the real blackbirding).
Some had a successful life, with many owning a home or a business in Australia. Most were returned to their island after their three-year contract. Others were returned to the wrong island. Some were never seen again.
Blackbirding ended for racist reasons as much as humanitarian. Trade unions wanted to keep jobs for the whiteman. Remember, The Bulletin magazine’s masthead slogan, “Australia for the White Man”, was a national political creed.
Last year, at the 150th anniversary of the start of blackbirding, two views were aired. The intelligentsia and rent-seekers bewailed the practice and sought recognition and compensation for descendants.
By contrast, others wanted better access to jobs in Australia. The view of Vanuatu Lands Minister Ralph Regenvanu was that compensation was unnecessary. Vanuatu wanted the Australian government to make it easier for its citizens to “once again” work in Australia.
While Regenvanu invoked history to prosecute his case, “right a wrong from history”, he was alert to the fact work “would be a way to reconnect families that have been broken, it would facilitate a cultural exchange”.
As an anthropologist he could have waxed about culture, but he would know that work was a major determinant of a healthy culture. He also understood that work “would help bridge a gap of disadvantage in terms of Vanuatu’s development”.
In 2013-14, Australia’s aid budget to the region is more than $1.1 billion and accounts for almost half of all assistance to the region.
Australians are not racist. The inner-city mob and their thin-skinned Aboriginal moral shields should take a look out bush sometime and move to a job.