Friday, 17 November 2017

Slave and Liberator Reunited in the search for Farmwork Justice

Moe Turaga came back to the Uniting Church in Mildura on Sunday 29 October.

The disability services worker from Bundaberg in Queensland was returning to the Sunraysia region for the first time in 30 years - a region that holds some painful memories for him.

For three years from the late 1980s, Moe was a horticultural worker at a farm near Mildura, picking grapes and other fruit and veg to fill the shelves of Australian supermarkets.

Moe came to Australia from Fiji at the age of 17 after his father died to support his mother and the rest of his family. The work arranged through his cousin – a minister of religion - was hard and unrelenting, picking in season, pruning in the off season. At least the money he earned was being sent back home to support his mother. So he thought.

Two-and-a-half years later, Moe’s world came crashing down when he spoke to his mother in Fiji on the phone. She told him that she hadn’t received a cent.

Like many people trapped in modern slavery situations Moe had no idea that he was working for nothing. His good intentions had been cruelly twisted around to the advantage of the person who had trafficked him to Australia.

Despair and dark thoughts set in.

“I felt cheated and deceived by this man who I and our community trusted,” says Moe.

“But I also felt trapped because of his position of power in our society and that I would be shamed by my community if I complained or came home empty-handed.

“I would be seen as the wrongdoer or the rebellious person who didn’t make good of the opportunity that was provided to me.”

Salvation when it came was through a member of the local Uniting Church.

Audrey who owned a nearby farm heard of Moe’s plight when he visited her Church. She offered Moe a job on her farm.

As Moe tells it, “I escaped from the grape farm and my cousin and worked for her from then on.”

“It was exhilarating to get paid a real wage into my own hand and to finally have money to get new clothes.  I was proud to send the money I made to my mother and hear the pride in her voice on the phone.

“Audrey helped me to get my passport back from the migration agent.  I was finally free to make my own choices and live my own life.”

Moe has told his story many times in the last few months - to Church forums, to journalists, to international government representatives and global business leaders.

As he entered the Uniting Church in Mildura again, Moe wondered about the woman whose intervention had turned his life around all those years ago.

God’s grace is a marvellous and powerful thing. Sitting in the back pew at Irymple Uniting Church that Sunday, were Audrey and her husband Alan, now in their eighties.

Tears welled up as the free man embraced his liberator.

When Moe thanked her, Audrey said, “That’s how life should be.”

The following day in Mildura, Moe told his story again, this time to a hearing of the Australian Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade Human Rights Sub-Committee.

The Committee is inquiring into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia.

As a result of many people like Moe telling their stories, there is now bipartisan support for the introduction of a Federal Modern Slavery Act, sometime in 2018.


Related story: UCA Congregations lead Pastoral Response to Farm Abuse