How this group of Tongan workers has found a home away from home on a Queensland banana plantation

Kesaia Helu, Valeti Kolo and Viliami Kolo are still enjoying their time and earning an income picking and packing fruit in Australia thanks to a supportive employer and their workmates.

A woman wearing black gloves and a grey tshirt with her brown hair tied back smiles at the camera. She is standing in a packing shed with boxes behind her, filling out paperwork as she leans against a box.

‘The farm has good hygiene’

Despite coronavirus lockdowns and travel restrictions, this group of Tongans are still enjoying their time and earning an income in Australia thanks to a supportive employer and their workmates.

Kesaia Helu, Valeti Kolo and Viliami Kolo from Kolomotu’a district in Tonga are employed by Ulandra, which operates a banana plantation in far north Queensland. All 3 workers joined the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) more than 6 years ago, then moved to the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) in 2020.

The 3 workers are part of a large team of 76 other Pacific Islanders, including 61 Tongans.

When the pandemic started to affect Australian jobs earlier this year, the employers at Ulandra were quick to check in with the Pacific workers and keep them informed.

“We had meetings about how to avoid getting COVID-19, and the farm has good hygiene. There are no cases here and every morning they [the employers] check our temperature,” Valeti said.

Ulandra Human Resources Officer Amanda Carvalho said it was essential to reassure the workers that they would be able to stay and work in Australia.

“We showed them that things would stay stable. We organised the 408 visa for all the SWP workers and the PLS workers will get the extension allowed under their visa,” she said.

A slice of Tonga in Australia

Kesaia, Valeti and Viliami are lucky to have stable jobs and a supportive employer, but they have not been entirely unaffected by the coronavirus.

“After six months we get a holiday and would normally go back to Tonga. Now we can’t do that,” Kesaia said.

But with such a large group of Tongans around them, Kesaia explained, the workers feel supported and connected to their homeland.

“We’re not homesick because we have close friends and [for some of us] family here. We have a community and are surrounded by nice people.”

Many of the Tongan workers at Ulandra live just outside town in shared accommodation known in their workplace as ‘the Tonga village’. The 45-bedroom facility includes a central garden, a gym, pool tables, a volleyball net and a big industrial kitchen.

Last year, Kesaia was hired through the PLS as a personal chef for the workers living at the village.

“I try lots of things but enjoy making traditional Tongan food to remind the boys of home and make them happy. I spoil them!” she said.

(Location is indicative to the nearest town)
A worker stands in a kitchen wearing an apron, holding a meat cleaver above a large cut of meat. She is smiling.

A change of routine due to COVID-19

Ulandra also supports workers who live outside the village to access food and other supplies, but there have been a few changes on this front since the social distancing measures were implemented.

“We used to order poultry and lamb in bulk for those who don’t get their food provided and offer a weekly bus to take them to the supermarket for groceries,” said Amanda.

“Now they send us their orders and we organise freight from the supermarkets instead.”

Social distancing has also changed the way the workers socialise.

“We used to go each other’s houses for boxing and to exercise. We’d go to the town field and play soccer, then volleyball and mass on the weekend,” Valeti said.

“Now we go straight home after work. But we can still talk and make jokes with each other on the farm and use our mobile phones to stay in touch when we get home.”

Although they are looking forward to resuming their usual activities, Kesaia, Valeti and Viliami said they are just happy for now that they can keep supporting their families back home.

“We can build or enlarge our houses, pay for tuition fees and vehicles, support our families … that’s why we love our job!” Viliami said.

“To our families: we miss you but don’t feel worried because we have our jobs so we can help you, we’re happy here, and we feel at home,” Valeti added.

A man wearing a black jumper smiles as he holds on to a bar above his head. He is in a packing shed.