The ecumenical Service of Lament commemorated 13 seasonal workers who died while working on Australian farms under the Federal Government’s Seasonal Workers Program.
Around 200 people attended, and many were moved to tears as they heard stories of the effect the workers’ deaths had on their families, especially young children.
There were also shocking personal accounts of people injured or assaulted while working on the Seasonal Worker Program, which sources workers from the Asia-Pacific region to pick fruit and vegetables in the Australian horticulture sector.
In a passionate sermon, Rev. Alimoni Taumoepeau reflected on Leviticus 25:39-43 and Matthew 22:35-40, and encouraged those gathering to “delete modern slavery.”
“Human behaviour which values some people more than others, or which exploits or injures others, is not only contrary to the values we hold as human beings, but actively damages God’s purpose for us as neighbour to one another,” preached Rev. Taumoepeau.
“Human beings are not property. We ought to make a commitment to affirm the inherent dignity of all individuals whether they be Pacific Islanders, Asians or Anglo.”
At least five of the 13 who died on the Seasonal Worker Program have been Tongan.
Woven mats were spread out across the front of the Church and over the altar in the traditional Pacific way of mourning.
Relatives and friends of the deceased laid flowers on the communion table to music performed by UCA Tonga and Fiji Parish choirs.
Church leaders including UCA President Stuart McMillan, NSW/ACT Synod General Secretary Rev. Jane Fry represented the Uniting Church, as were leaders from the UCA Sydney Presbytery, Tonga Parish, Fiji Parish and a UCA Samoan congregation.
Church members from the Strathfield area where Mr Laundy is the local Member of Parliament also turned out in force, along with many from Australia’s Pacific community, some of whom flew in from as far away as Western Australia and Far North Queensland. Pastor Ray Minniecon of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress also shared his prayers and gave the Welcome to Country.
Craig Laundy is the Federal Minister responsible for the Seasonal Workers Program and he listened closely to the stories presented, before joining Rev Taumoepeau in laying a wreath to the dead workers.
“The testimonies that we’ve heard - that’s not exploitation of vulnerable workers, that is criminal,” said Mr Laundy.
“It should be sought out and prosecuted. I would also note that we have our job at hand and would also welcome the opportunity again to work with community leaders.”
The Service of Lament was initiated by Rev. Taumoepeau with support from the Salvation Army’s Freedom Partnership to End Modern Slavery, the Sydney Alliance, and the Pacific Australia Seasonal Workers Association (PASWA).
PASWA President Mrs Falepaini Maile thanked Mr Laundy for listening to their stories after many years of frustration with the way the Federal Department of Employment handled their complaints.
“Workers who have been victims of abuse, bullying, intimidation and threats never tell anyone, instead, preferring to quietly suffer in shame, embarrassment, low self-esteem and a sense of failure and rejection,” said Ms Maile.
“When your Department, Minister or the staff of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Tonga visit the worksites or survey the workers, they will never hear these stories. This is why we are very grateful to you for listening today.”
PASWA and the Sydney Alliance shared a list of 12 actions to put to Mr Laundy in coming weeks to improve conditions for seasonal workers. They include steps to prevent overcharging for accommodation, excessive deductions for transport and low piece rates for long hours of work. There is also a request to follow up superannuation life insurance payments that the families of the 13 deceased workers have yet to receive.
More than 20 church leaders from Uniting, Catholic, Salvation Army, Hillsong, Baptist, Mormon and local Korean churches offered prayers as part of the service.
UCA President Stuart McMillan prayed for the grieving families: “As they are weighed down by grief and loneliness may they know that you God are upholding them at all times.”
Rev. Fry prayed for justice: “We pray Holy God, and we cry out - how can one person have a heart so hardened that they see another human being as a commodity?”
Rev. Kiliona Mafaufau of the Samoan Uniting Church in Lidcombe and Rev. Mosesi Taufa of UCA Tonga Parish Auburn prayed for perpetrators “for their transformation in heart and hands,” and that they would “come to repentance and seek to do the right thing by the law of the land,” while Dr Glen Powell prayed for the courage for all to oppose modern slavery in all its forms in the community.
Civil society and union representatives also made statements of solidarity.
The Seasonal Workers Program is overseen by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Federal Department of Employment - and has been the subject of a number of recent media reports of abuse and exploitation. Last year Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull also announced that the Program would be expanded to include more Pacific nations.
The Service of Lament also focused on broader attempts to combat modern slavery in Australia and internationally.
Survivor advocate Moe Turaga from the Salvation Army’s Freedom Partnership to End Slavery called on the Australian Government to take greater leadership on the issue on the global stage.
“With the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting taking place in London we believe the Australian Government should be leading the way on ending slavery in the Commonwealth and in our Pacific region,” said Mr Turaga.
Mrs Maile and Mr Turaga both gave evidence last year at a Parliamentary Inquiry into Modern Slavery.
“Our message to you Minister and to your Government - is that the introduction of Modern Slavery legislation is very important to us,” said Mr Turaga who worked unpaid for three years on grape farms in the Riverina,” said Mr Turaga.
“These laws will be a big step towards ending modern slavery that is happening here in our business supply chains.”
After concerted campaigns by church leaders and business leaders like Andrew Forrest, the Australian Government is expected to introduce a Modern Slavery Act to Parliament sometime this year.
Some churches are already taking action. Archbishop Anthony Fisher has committed the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney and its agencies to work to slavery-proof their supply chains.
The Head of the Archdiocese’s Anti-Slavery Taskforce, John McCarthy QC, who was also at the Service, stressed the importance of the task ahead.
“We simply must aim to end slavery within this generation,” said Mr McCarthy.