Since 2016, Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA has been supporting the Samoa First Union (SFU) as part of our work promoting trade union development in the Asia-Pacific. Founded in 2015, SFU is the first and only private sector union in Samoa and have become well-known nationally for their advocacy for workers’ rights across a broad spectrum of industries and issues.
Despite being a small union with limited resources, it aims to ensure that workers and their families are represented in legal and social support systems as well as campaigning for individuals who experience injustice. The union is mainly engaged in explaining to workers their rights, working within the community so that they learn about unions and advocating for essential services such as the need to improve the minimum wage and prevent employers from pocketing super deductions from the Samoa National Provident Fund (SNPF).
Before COVID-19, most of SFU’s members were employed in local hotels, breweries, banks, manufacturing, retail, warehousing and in maritime industries. However, more than 3000 workers, primarily those in the tourism and hospitality sectors represented by SFU were laid off during COVID-19. This led to large numbers of Samoans participating in seasonal worker programs in Australia and New Zealand.
This spike is mirrored across the Pacific, with ANU Researcher Charlotte Bedford noting that “close to 48,000 visas were issued to workers participating in Australia’s Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme and New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme between July 1, 2022 and June 30, 2023 – twice the 24,975 visas issued in 2018-19, the last full year of recruitment pre-Covid”.
With the vast majority of members now undertaking seasonal work, SFU had to shift its focus. Most weekday mornings, a long queue of prospective and returned seasonal workers wait patiently outside SFU’s office in Samoa’s capital, Apia, seeking their assistance and support through the labour migration process – from helping with their applications, contracts and police checks, to assisting them to claim their entitlements while overseas, and outstanding superannuation on return home.
Despite only having three staff, SFU can support over 100 workers a day. Hearing about SFU often via word-of-mouth, they come from all over Samoa’s main two islands. Largely from rural areas, many do not speak English confidently. Some do not have an email address or a good understanding of the technological conveniences of modern life that bureaucratic processes rely on.
Challenges of seasonal worker program
Given the strong demand, scams have become rife, and even well-meaning misinformation spreads like wildfire. Realising the workers’ vulnerabilities, SFU started providing briefings to groups of their members about to be deployed, helping them to navigate the process and providing advice based on SFU’s ongoing discussions with returned workers and support networks in receiving countries. Working in concert with Australian and New Zealand unions, SFU have been able to document and speak out about the various challenges, including labour and human rights violations these workers face, both in Samoa and while deployed overseas, and represent their concerns to Samoan policymakers.
Working in concert with Australian and New Zealand unions, SFU have been able to document and speak out about the various challenges, including labour and human rights violations these workers face, both in Samoa and while deployed overseas, and represent their concerns to Samoan policymakers.
SFU aren’t the only ones raising concerns. While most people agree that seasonal work is providing welcome employment opportunities for Samoans to support their families and communities, the quick transition has caused significant domestic policy challenges. Originally intended to provide high-paying work for unemployed or low-skilled young workers, it has since broadened to include professions like aged care and hospitality. The huge surge in demand saw a significant proportion of workers leaving jobs in the private and public sectors to work overseas, sparking concerns of a ‘brain drain’ and worker shortages. Both government and employers raise labour supply concerns for domestic industries, reporting significant losses of skilled technicians and educated workers, including police, nurses, teachers and clerical staff, to seasonal work. Policymakers and the SFU are also concerned that seasonal work is contributing to social and cultural problems in their small island country that greatly values its customs and way of life. Often isolated and vulnerable while overseas, there are many reports of workers turning to drugs, alcohol and extramarital affairs, leading to family and community breakdowns, and a shortage of people willing to take on traditional roles. Local wages cannot compete with those offered in Australia or New Zealand, meaning that most will try to opt to return to seasonal work again and again, sparking concerns for Samoa’s local industries and future development.
New policy recommendations
Despite these many challenges, there is a strong desire from all stakeholders to make these schemes work for all involved. Participant countries determine their level of involvement in labour mobility programs, including recruitment processes, how many and which types of workers take part, and other criteria. As an affiliate of the Samoan Workers Congress (SWC), who represent workers in Samoa’s forums with government and employers, SFU have been urging their government to amend their outdated National Seasonal Workers Policy to address labour violations and other problems which are impacting on community harmony. In response to these calls, and highly publicised allegations of worker exploitation in both Australia and New Zealand, the Samoan Government temporarily suspended their involvement in seasonal workers programs earlier this year and announced a review to identify ways to remedy the loss of domestic skilled labour, worker welfare concerns and social issues. SFU’s Senior Organiser Saina Tomi represented workers on the committee, ensuring that they have a strong voice in the review. This has now resulted in Samoa’s new Policy for Temporary Labour Migration under the Labour Mobility Schemes of Australia and New Zealand, which amongst other things, recommends:
- Capping the number of Samoan workers mobilised annually to 6,000 each for New Zealand and Australia.
- Tightening of selection processes to ensure that only those genuinely unemployed are mobilised overseas. District Committees with deep ties to their local communities will select the workers for each season, subject to the national and district quotas and the eligibility criteria set out in the new policy.
- SFU, via the SWC, to officially become part of pre-departure briefings to enable Samoan workers and their families to understand their rights and context of work in Australia and New Zealand, including the important role played by unions as “part and parcel of working life”. This will “enable workers to access help and support from workers unions in the receiving countries to enable protection of their rights and ensure appropriate welfare support”.
By formally enabling a local union to be part of the process, all of Samoa’s seasonal workers, not just SFU’s members, will now benefit SFU’s expertise, and access to the support of the wider union movement while working in Australia and New Zealand. Not only does this recognise the crucial role played by unions, like SFU, in ensuring worker rights, welfare and security, but also sets an important precedent to be considered by other countries participating in labour mobility schemes.