As Australians, we are blessed to have ready access to fresh fruit and vegetables throughout the year. But have you ever given thought to the extensive workforce required to bring this produce to you?
The hard work of planting, tending and harvesting is currently being undertaken by almost 23,000 seasonal workers, many of whom come from vibrant, Christian communities in neighbouring countries.
Australia’s dependence on seasonal workers became apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, when border closures restricted the movement of workers from overseas. Provision of adequate housing, wages and services for seasonal workers has been reported on widely. Recent research into the conditions of these workers has also shown the need for pastoral care, including access to culturally appropriate activities and connection with sporting groups and faith communities.
Awareness of the need for pastoral care has long been on the mind of several Catholic agencies and communities. Good Samaritan Sister Taabeia Ibouri lived in Australia for four years. She has returned to South Tarawa, the main island of Kiribati, to assist people preparing to come to work in Australia.
“I knew the challenges of living in the Australian culture, the language and other barriers that exist for seasonal workers. I now work with the Australian government preparing training and information to be given to those travelling to Australia to work,” Sr Taabeia writes.
The ministry Sr Taabeia is undertaking contributes to a joint initiative between Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans (ACRATH) and the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office (ACMRO). In 2022, these groups began establishing a network offering pastoral care for seasonal workers, inviting parishes and stakeholders to become involved.
So, what does this look like at the parish level? Mercy Sister Helen Nolen is based in Mildura, Victoria, where there are currently more than 500 Timorese working in the surrounding region. Sr Helen recently attended a birthday party where she estimates 400 of the 500 Timorese were on hand.
“I felt I was back in Timor at a party – the organisation, the food, the music and prayer before eating. At the party I spoke with Justin, who has been here for three years. He expressed his gratefulness to be able to work in Australia and to be able to send money home to support his family with their daily needs, including education for the younger members,” says Sr Helen.
Sr Helen also noted that in Red Cliffs some workers have organised themselves into a choir and often sing at the Sunday Mass.
“This has been a real blessing for the small and ageing community,” she says.
“The Timorese blend in and adapt well within our church community and we feel so blessed to have such a vibrant community of younger and active churchgoers in our midst.”
ACMRO director Fr Khalid Marogi says COVID-19 was a very difficult time for seasonal workers who could not return home to be with their loved ones, especially when family members passed away.
It was during this time that All Saints Parish Pastoral Council in Port Augusta saw the need to do something positive to cheer up the workers. They headed out to a local farm and celebrated Mass in the shearing shed and offered prayers for the intentions of fellow workers from Protestant, Buddhist and Hindu traditions. This was followed by a feast and a demonstration of sheep shearing.
The Young Christian Workers (YCW) of Port Augusta have also assisted the seasonal workers by providing English lessons in a makeshift church classroom.
“Thank God for the simplicity of hospitality, friendship and kindness,” says Fr Jim Monaghan, parish priest at Port Augusta.
“Local communities can make seasonal workers feel special and get a good feeling at the same time. Thanks to the Holy Spirit who continually moves ACMRO and ACRATH to help make life more dignified for the people who come to our country to keep our primary industries afloat.”
From a purely pragmatic perspective, farmers require seasonal workers to get their produce to customers – us! But there is something larger at play here. Catholic communities are being given a wonderful opportunity to support and be supported by these workers.
In the parishes where these workers make their temporary homes, Catholics can reach out to them and make them welcome by providing practical support and friendship – a home-away-from-home, you might say. And, in return, our parishes can be supported by the vibrant religiosity and deep spirituality many of these workers bring with them. They are not shy about their faith and this, in many ways, can encourage us to be prouder of our Catholic faith and traditions.
These seasonal workers from our neighbouring islands are making big sacrifices to support their families and communities at home. And they add significantly to our standard of living. With more than 12,000 seasonal workers living in Queensland and others located in every state, there are likely to be many opportunities for your community to support our brothers and sisters in Christ. For more information, please see the links below.
Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme
ACRATH Supporting Seasonal Workers, April 14, 2021
St Columban’s Mission Society, Justice delayed is justice denied. March 23, 2020
Images: Seasonal workers enjoying a day out, Port Augusta Parish, SA. Supplied.
YCW members with parish priest Fr Jim Monaghan and seasonal workers attending English lessons. Supplied, courtesy of Diocese of Port Pirie.
Words: Sharon Brewer
 ABC News, Calls for more Pacific-led services for Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme, 4 March 2023. Griffith University, Why backpackers and seasonal migrants matter to regional Australia, 20 January, 2023.