BY GEORGINA KEKEA
SOLOMON Islanders continue to benefit from the Seasonal Workers Scheme (SWS) in Australia. Since its establishment in 2012, the number of farm workers from Solomon Islands has more than doubled from 42 in 2012 to 87 in 2017.
The most common goal of these workers is to have a house, a decent living and to be able to support their family. From a village close to Tambea, Joseph Cheka is a new dad. He left home in March this year (2018) to work under the SWS in Australia leaving behind his six month old child and new wife.
The daunting future of not having a roof over their head drove Joseph to leave his home to earn money for his family.
“I used to sell copra. I started the foundation of my house through selling copra. At that time, a bag of copra was SBD$4.00 per kilo. You can imagine how much hard work I have to go through in order to save money. I used to earn SBD$400.00 at the most per market”.
Drying coconut to make copra takes time. The method used for most rural Solomon Islanders is drying where the kernel or coconut meat is left in the sun to dry. It can take a week at the most to dry the coconut. Prior to that, they have to collect the coconut fruits, remove the husks and then remove the kernel to be left out to dry. Depending on the amount of coconut dried, a villager can get SBD$400.00 to SBD$700.00 (AUD$70.00 to AUD$120.00) a fortnight.
By working in Australia, a villager can earn an estimated AUD$1000 per week (SBD$5650 a week) after deductions.
“So now I am back in the country, I will continue to work on my house. All I want is a permanent house with good sanitation facilities”, Cheka said.
Sharing the same sentiment is mother of four, Freda Sikwae. Her eldest son is already a teenager. Freda grew up at Kakabona and still lives there.
“I used to be a market vender. That’s all I do. But I feel that I have gained nothing out of it since I am only living for today. I want my children to have a future that includes having a good home and house to stay in. That was why I have to leave my children no matter the time frame”.
For Freda this is the first time she has left her family behind for a long time. She said it was hard at first but then she started to settle in and things got better.
Freda worked in Gin Gin a town in Queensland where she was responsible for classifying the fruits according to the different grades. She said her responsibility was enormous because one slight mistake can damage the company’s quality control. She said she had to learn on the job, a task she found easy to do. She said in between the eight hours work, she also had 30 minutes break in two hour intervals over the day.
For Cheka, his job is picking citrus fruits on a farm in Mildura in Victoria in south-east Australia
“In comparison to copra, this is easy. The weather is conducive since it is way cooler then the stifling heat here in our country. So no matter what, I enjoyed my job and I am thankful for the opportunity”.
For them, communication is not a problem. Freda speaks to her children each day via the Facebook Messenger app and feels close to them despite the distance. She said it brightens her day when she talks to her children and it gives her hope to continue work each day.
For Joseph, he only speaks to his family occasionally. Telecommunications are a problem where they live so he can only speak to his family once they go to the nearest town. Like Freda, his family also communicated with him using Messenger.
“We are lucky in Australia because they provide free Wi-Fi where we were lodged unlike my family, they have to buy data in order for them to talk to me. And this happens only when they come into town”, Cheka said.
Back in Solomon Islands, Cheka is happy just to be with his wife, baby and extended family.
Over the six-month stint, they are working on fulfilling their dream. Cheka said he will continue to build his house, while Freda is working on building another house for her family.
“We have a house already, but I want another one where I can put out for rent since housing is a problem in the country. Once complete, I can then put out for rent and my children’s future is secure”, Freda said.
Though at times they send money back home for urgent needs, there is still enough left that they have saved.
Coming from the same recruiting agency, they both say having the support of fellow peers is important while overseas.
It was their first time overseas and it definitely won’t be the last.
“I am now an expert in maneuvering through the airport and customs. Something which I was quite fearful of when I first stepped on Australian soil”, Cheka said.
For Freda she said she got through each day by being thankful that her children are safe and not being harmed or ill.
“The six months went by very fast when one is being kept busy. We have no time to go out socializing. We get up at 4am for an hour’s drive to our work place. By the time we get home, it will be night and we only want to rest”.