Hidden from view: Pacific islanders in regional Victoria

When rural Australia is portrayed on film and TV, it tends to be a monoculture. Farmers who’ve been there for generations. Retirees with similar interests. Backpackers out for a good time. Ethnic diversity doesn't get much attention, but La Trobe’s Professor Helen Lee is changing that. Her research team gives a voice to Pacific Islanders working in regional Victoria. They’re shining a light on the value they bring to the community, and the problems they face.

The La Trobe team, consisting of Professor Lee and Dr Makiko Nishitani, operates in partnership with local community groups. These include the Sunraysia Mallee Ethnic Communities Council (the Executive Officer is the project’s Partner Investigator, Dean Wickham) and Mallee Sports Assembly. These groups work with regional Victorian communities, particularly in Mildura and Robinvale.

Professor Lee, Dr Nishitani and Mr Wickham hope to understand the socio-economic situation of Pacific Islanders living in regional Victoria. They’re working with Pacific settlers and those employed through the Seasonal Worker Programme, a government-run initiative that gives employment opportunities to Pacific Islanders in Australia’s agriculture and accommodation sectors.

Uncovering diversity

According to Professor Lee, 'we want to help Pacific Island communities in regional Victoria articulate their issues and draw attention to the value their communities bring’.

For example, the Seasonal Worker Programme sends ‘seasonal workers to towns with Pacific people who have been doing that same work for decades’. That could escalate into a social problem, with Pacific settlers relying on this work at risk of being pushed out.

But there’s another worry, says Professor Lee: ‘that there will be a new wave of overstayers who’ll abscond because they’re treated badly by employers involved with the programme’.

Monitoring the Programme

Professor Lee says that Australia frames the Seasonal Worker Programme as a form of development aid, while the World Bank 'talks about it as the saviour of the Pacific'.

We've heard lots of stories from workers crammed into sheds and barns with poor-quality food. I think it’s becoming very exploitative and I’m really concerned about it.

However, 'what it really implies is that Pacific Islanders are viewed as a pool of unskilled labour just waiting for Australia to allow them in to do some hard, poorly paid work and then go home again'.

There’s no added value because ‘they don't appear to be doing much training, which was meant to be part of the scheme: for example, learning skills and going to TAFE so they could get vocational training. I also don't think there's good monitoring of the treatment of workers.’

Living conditions are far from ideal, says Professor Lee.

‘We've heard lots of stories from workers having to sleep in sheds and barns and provided with poor-quality food. I think it’s becoming very exploitative and I’m really concerned about it.’

The team also looks at the impact of seasonal workers leaving their homes in the islands every year for six months or so, disrupting their families.

‘Why not open up more immigration rather than just having a labour pool that comes and goes?’ Professor Lee asks. ‘There's plenty of scope for people to settle where their relatives are already based.’

The La Trobe team focuses on transnationalism, that is, the ties migrants have with their home country. Another key research area is the networks of contacts and movement of Pacific people across America, New Zealand and Australia.

‘Tongans, for example, visit each other across the diaspora,’ Professor Lee explains. ‘But those three countries have tight immigration controls, so often they meet up in Tonga. The main tourist industry in Tonga is Tongans returning rather than foreigners arriving.’

Visas and precarity

The concern for the Pacific settlers, Professor Lee says, is about their children ‘following them into this precarious agricultural work rather than getting an education'.

But it’s not so cut and dried. Parents are placed in a difficult position. They want better lives for their children, yet they also need income.

With all of this in mind, the team hope to do research in six Mildura high schools. They’ll ask students how they see their community in the future and where they feel they belong. They'll also research the obstacles that prevent them meeting their aspirations and how these could be overcome.

Stay healthy or fly under the radar?

There's a high rate of diabetes and other non-communicable diseases (NCDs) within rural Pacific communities, as many people don’t seek help until their illness has advanced.

Overstayers can’t access services as they’re trying to keep under the radar, so then there’s a serious issue about not accessing services for their kids.

Understandably, the focus of regional health groups is on these NCDs, but Professor Lee says that when the team speaks to the communities, ‘the workers are more concerned about the physical effects of their work’.

With all of these health worries, problems then compound.

Another issue is that ‘overstayers can’t access services as they’re trying to keep under the radar, so then there’s a serious issue about not accessing services for their kids’.

Making policy play catch-up

Professor Lee says the settled Pacific communities in the region feel neglected by government policy.

‘There's a lot of energy and policy around Indigenous communities and refugees who are being resettled,’ she says. ‘But Pacific settlers feel like they’re in between those groups and not getting much attention.’

The La Trobe research team therefore has an important mission charter: to convince the government and public alike to rethink the myth of settled and monocultural rural communities.

Their research is a means to this end. The team wants to help policy catch up with these diverse and mobile communities, and ease the struggle of Pacific Islanders in Australia.

Professor Helen Lee is based in the Department of Social Inquiry at La Trobe University and she is one of the key researchers at the Centre for the Study of the Inland.

Dr Makiko Nishitani is a Research Associate in La Trobe’s Department of Social Inquiry.

See yourself helping communities find their voice. Enrol in La Trobe’s Anthropology research degrees.

Inspired by our work? Find out more about our anthropology courses.

Inspired by our research?