Samoa First Union gives hope to workers hit hard by the Pandemic

May 29, 2021


Samoa First Union (SFU) was formed in 2015 by First Union New Zealand. First Union wanted to develop a union for private sector workers as the Samoan community within its membership was concerned by the exploitation and lack of representation for workers in Samoa. In 2016, Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA began supporting the project, and it has been a journey of learning ever since. The project focuses on capacity building and developing appropriate approaches and tactics that fit within the Samoan culture.

Samoa and the impact of COVID-19

Samoa, despite having few cases of COVID-19 and no deaths, has been greatly impacted by the global pandemic. Tourism plays a major role in Samoa’s economy with much of the profit of foreign-owned resorts going overseas to parent companies. These profits are not spent within Samoa. However, with the current COVID-19 crisis, like other Pacific economies, Samoa is struggling with huge job losses and a debt burden to foreign Governments.

Before the pandemic hit, already one in five people in Samoa lived in poverty. The situation is now worse. With the collapse of employment in the private sector during COVID, many workers were told to stay in their villages and work in the fields to grow the food. Workers have some of the staples of food and literally a roof over their head but without a social security system there is no money for any of the costs for school contributions, water or electricity. Financial distress is growing.

Workers employed with foreign-owned businesses in Samoa

The private sector in Samoa is made up of a number of big foreign-owned businesses. These include big foreign-owned resorts, Coca Cola, as well as big banks. These businesses are a stark contrast to other workplaces because of the foreign culture and practices that they introduce. Samoa has a retail sector, university and a big hospital, as well as many other colleges for learning and occupational development, and they have a developed public sector. But for the majority of Samoans, their experience of work in the private and the informal sector is very different to these big foreign employers or the more highly advanced local workplaces.

Samoa First Union is the first private sector union that is trying to develop a trade union culture in Samoa. None of the big foreign employers are neutral about trade unions and it is common for workers to be told not to join the unions. The Coordinator of Samoa First Union, Saina Tomi, is the only paid union worker in the whole country. She wears many hats and has to be the finance manager, communications and social media worker, the membership data base manager as well as the industrial advocate, community organiser, policy developer and of course, the organiser and union educator. She represents Samoa in the International Labour Conference and is an earnest representative of Samoa as well as the working people.




Organising workers to fit in with Samoan culture

The job of organiser in Samoa is about finding the ways of working in harmony with the best of Samoan culture and teaching workers about the importance of trade unionism which is about working and making decisions collectively. Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA has been the main project supporter of Samoa First Union for the last 5 years in supporting the development of organising strategies and capacity.

Saina’s job has changed from being focused on talking to workers at workplaces to working in the wider community. This follows the significant win of an increase in the minimum wage in 2019 which enabled the community to speak out in support of a fairer share for workers. Now Saina continues to work at village level and maps the laid off workers and keeps a register so that she can advocate to the Government, the ILO and via the Samoa National Tripartite Committee for better programmes.  She maintains community networks within and across villages so that she is able to speak up for workers and to advocate for essential community services as well as work opportunities.

Samoan workers are generally all paid the minimum wage. For most of these workers, they still receive too little to pay for their cost of living so adults hand over all of their money to the elders of the family who have to work out how to pay all of the bills. One worker who worked full time for a 40-hour week, was only able to contribute enough money to buy one meal. The rest of his money was spent on his bus fare to work. So many Samoan workers do not have money of their own that they can decide to spend. Poverty in Samoa means to have nothing and not even to be able to contribute to the family. This is why creating decent jobs is important. The reliance on tourism has not meant a secure economic future for Samoa, especially against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Creating decent work for Samoan workers: new opportunities

In the last year, Saina travelled extensively through the main populated areas of Samoa and led training courses for workers so they could learn about their rights as workers and to identify who would be able to participate in new work programmes. Saina believes that it is important to create local decent jobs for workers. She was excited about the ILO Green Jobs pilot programme with a local business that was training workers to recycle IT hardware. And now there is a new programme teaching unskilled workers basic PC skills.

Seasonal Workers

Saina is also central to trying to get a fair deal for seasonal workers who come to Australia to work on short term visas but who are often exploited. These workers face many challenges because they are unable to access information in Samoan. Samoan seasonal workers are confronted by huge pressure to send the money that they earn back home. They often have to pay up to $150 for a shared room, $50 for a lift to the farm as well as the costs of their airfares, visas and medical insurance. Some of their pay slips show that even though the workers are paid legally, there are so many deductions so they have to continue working for the full term of the contract. This means that workers are responsible for all of the costs and it makes them very insecure as they have to live on around $300 dollars a fortnight. Some workers, especially those on piece rates, end up with about $50 a week and that is unlikely to be enough to feed a physical worker. Saina has reported that when workers fail to retain enough money to eat well, they then have to deal with infections and ill health.

 Australian workers supporting workers in Samoa

All of this work with Samoa First Union is only possible thanks to APHEDA’s generous supporters and monthly donors. As this is a union development programme, even though the SFU is working to improve the outlook for the ordinary Samoan people and the broader community, there is no funding from the Australian government to support this project. Saina tells her networks that the funding for SFU comes from ordinary people in Australia who volunteer to give money so that they have a chance of building a union in Samoa. Even the prospect of having an office and meeting space plus a worker is more than can be sustained by the Samoan community.

With Samoa First Union, the community in Samoa would not have had an increase in the minimum wage. They would not have access to training and information about health and safety and would be exploited either in Samoa or here in Australia. The project helps Samoan people defend their own dignity and pride as workers.



Solidarity Across Borders

As the global justice organisation of the trade union movement, Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA works to bolster the power of social movements and trade unions across the globe. By becoming a member, you will be supporting trade unions like the Samoa First Union mount powerful campaigns that can win good wages, safe workplaces, and decent conditions.

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