A Fucked Govt Ad Uses Pacific Islander Seasonal Workers’ Cultural Values Against Them

An Australian government campaign designed for Pacific Islander farm workers says they'll bring "shame" to their families if they abscond.

The Australian government seems hellbent on constantly outdoing itself with insensitive and racist bullshit, the latest example being a callous campaign aimed at farm workers from the Pacific Islands.

The campaign warns that workers who abscond will “bring shame” to their families, despite the slave-like conditions many of these workers face.

Seasonal workers are notoriously exploited and underpaid, but instead of ensuring humane and fair treatment of farm workers so they don’t desperately try to flee in the first place, our government has decided the appropriate route of action here is fear-mongering. Even going so far as to tell workers that they’ll doom their families’ reputations and working opportunities if they try to escape their job.

“You may not be able to work in Australia again (this may include your family and community members),” a campaign poster reads.

“You may damage the relationship between your country and the employer, and you may bring shame to your family’s reputation.”

absconding the risks and consequences poster
Image: Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment

The issue with the poster might not seem obvious, but the choice of victim-blamey language immediately makes it seem like it’s fleeing workers that are the problem here, rather than exploitative conditions.

Alison Rahill, executive officer of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney’s Anti-Slavery Taskforce, told The Guardian that 80% of the seasonal farm workers are tied to labour hire contractors which means they’re usually working poorer conditions, so the focus should be on that instead.

The poster isn’t just icky because of the victim-blaming that comes with shaming fleeing workers though — there’s also the specific weaponisation of family values commonly found in Pasifika cultures that feels insidious to me.

Imagine talking about “shame” while occupying stolen land, with a history of slavery, genocide and blackbirding: a term referring to the luring, tricking and kidnapping of Pacific Islander people to work for little to no wages on Australian farms. Basically a form of slavery itself, but you know how much this country avoids that word.

I can’t say this is shocking information given Australia’s track record of abusing refugees and illegally turning back asylum seekers. Or even this country’s attitude to the Pacific Islands already.

I mean, remember when Deputy PM Michael McCormack said people in “those sorts of countries” (the Pacific Islands) will survive climate change because they pick our fruit?

“I also get a little bit annoyed when we have people in those sorts of countries pointing the finger at Australia and say we should be shutting down all our resources sector so that, you know, they will continue to survive,” he said after critical talks at the Pacific Islands Forum in 2019.

“They will continue to survive, there’s no question they’ll continue to survive and they’ll continue to survive on large aid assistance from Australia.

“They’ll continue to survive because many of their workers come here and pick our fruit, pick our fruit grown with hard Australian enterprise and endeavour and we welcome them and we always will.”

The Pacific Islands are literally drowning because of rising sea levels from melting glaciers, in a preventable climate disaster that Australia is complicit in given our fossil fuel emissions, but sure. Let them pick fruit. That’ll save them.

Season workers are already disadvantaged and isolated in many forms. If the government is worried about high rates of absconding, the answer isn’t to scare workers into staying in conditions that may not be fair, it’s to create systemic changes that actually make this profession safe. Australia, do better.