You’re in your own world, you just totally forget what’s happening around you, because your mind is just on the tomatoes, and you don’t realise that the time is going and suddenly it’s smoko time, break time. And then after 15 minutes you go back and when you’re in there you just totally forget everything. For me, I like it that way. Because I concentrate more on my picking rather than to think of anything else.
Most of the time, I sing a song in my head. I’m into the classics – the ‘70s, the ‘80s – like Phil Collins, Bryan Adams, the Bee Gees. Pussycat. You know that song “Mississippi”? I’ll remember you, yes that’s it, that’s the song that I got in my head today.
I’ll be here for six months. It’s my fourth season. I got one son, but I look after so many kids – round about 13 or so. They are all my in-laws’ kids, but I love kids, so yeah… and now they are in college. Back in Vanuatu the fees are very high, so with what my husband and me have, we couldn’t afford it. So I have to come back to get more money so the kids can go to school.
I’m the team leader. We came out from an agent in Port Vila, the labour hire company hired us through this agent. Each one of us comes from Christian families, different denominations, but when we are here we are just one. We count ourselves as family. Every boy, they don’t call me Jennifer, they call me Aunty Jennifer. Some call me mum.
Back in Vila, I go to Church of Christ. When you are away from home, your partner is not here, your kids are not here, your family is not around, it keeps you going when you believe in something. Yes, you can do it, hold on until six months and you’re going to go back home and see your families again.
At the end of the day, we sing, we say thank you to the big man up there. We call that the “evening devotions”. We take turns to speak. Tonight we were singing in Bislama and then in the Shefa dialect. Then one of the men was sharing God’s word. His story was about how there’s a big tree back home called the Nabanga. The seeds are very tiny, very tiny, but it grows and becomes a very big tree. So he was explaining that the seed is like us coming to Australia. When you take the money back home you have to use it wisely. You can have a business out of the money that you take back.
I am a picker, my job is just to pick tomatoes everyday. There’s five varieties of tomatoes in the glasshouse I’m working in now. All the pickers have to pick six to eight tonnes of tomatoes, in a day. It’s very hot, very hot in the glasshouse. Really really, very very very hot. I wear boots. Long sleeves, gloves, and there’s hairnets and facemasks. One glasshouse is the size of half of a football field. We plant the tomatoes high off the ground, on top of kind of a slab and we’ve got all these drippers for the water to run into the plant.
I pick ripe ones only. No green shoulders. That means that we pick tomatoes that are not green on top, it’s red or orange. We put them in a bucket hanging around our neck, then we put them inside a box, on top of the trolley. It’s 40 boxes in a trolley, and we have to push. In a day, we have to pick two different varieties of tomatoes and on Saturday we do truss cutting – that’s where we cut the stem from the tomato plants. When we get home, we’re just worn out. It’s only Sunday that I don’t go to work.
I’m getting used to it now, because it’s four seasons, four years I’ve come back. I’m getting used to it, because I’m always here at Mallala. I feel good about it because it’s my second home. But on the other side, um… to be honest, the other side, it’s like… some whitefellas, they don’t think that we belong here, we’re not supposed to be working here. The job we’re doing, it’s theirs. Here in town, my first season, they told us straight in the face: “Go back to your place.“ And they just laugh at us.
When we arrived that first time, the thing I remember was the drive to get here. We were in this big bus from Adelaide and we were wondering, Where are we going? We’ve passed the town… But then I told my friends that it just might be somewhere backway, so we have to expect that.
It was okay the first season, but we had some rip offs. So what we did was, we called the labour hire bosses and I told them, See, this is what’s happening. My friends were a bit scared, because back home, our culture, we respect the bosses. We don’t go close to them. But I told the others that if we don’t speak up, this thing is going to go on and on and on. I’m like this – I speak up every time something is wrong. Most of us here don’t have a very good education background, so that’s why I stepped in.
When they came, they told everyone, “Okay, you guys that don’t want to join the union come and sign your name.” It was a form to say that you’re not going to join the union. They told us, “The union is not going to do anything good for you guys. If you join the union you’re going to be sent back home.” I didn’t believe their words. The room was filled with everybody. One boss was reading from the iPad, he kept going on, on, on about issues from the policies and the contract that we signed. After everything he said, “Do you understand?”
Back home in Vanuatu, if you whitefellas come, when you say something, we don’t talk but we just say yes. It’s kind of a respect. We just nod our heads and nothing else. Because I knew my people, I knew that they don’t understand anything. I stood up and I spoke in our dialect and I told them, “Do you people understand what this whitefella is talking about?” And everybody they said, No, Jenny… this, that, this.
I said, “Okay, now you people shut up, I’m going to ask him a question.” So I started. I started with our payslips. Then, why are we not supposed to join the union? Why, if we’re not working, do we still have to pay for the bus? And I told him, “You want us to do our jobs here, do your job here.”
He got pissed off with me. He got very pissed off with me, then he walked out. And everybody went silent and one of the guys, he turned around and told me, “Jenny, see what you did?” I said, “No, I’m talking for the better of the crew. We have to have some privileges here. They’re not going to treat us like our forefathers, our grandfathers that were here as slaves, during the blackbirding. No, we’re not going to be like that.”
The union helped us fight the case. We were supposed to go to court, but we had this outside settlement and we won. And the chief executive, he came down here. Might be he’s a city person, but he came down here to Mallala to say, “You’re a strong woman.” He said sorry. I said, “It’s not for me, it’s for all of the Ni-Vans working here. You just have to apologise to them.” So the chief executive and the general operations manager, they apologised. We all said, “Yes, it’s okay.”
Even today, people are still saying that we’re here working as slaves. Even today, even though it’s a national program that supports both parties, like Australians and Ni-Vans. That’s whitefellas, white people saying that. Like, “Why are you here, why are you working here? Haven’t you learnt your lesson like your forefathers?” When people say that, I want to answer them straight away, but I’ve got another friend and he kicks me under the table, because he knows me very well. He whispers, “Just leave it Jenny, just leave it.”
What would I tell them? That if you whitefellas think that we are slaves, then you people should get inside the glasshouse and do the job.
Our contract has come to an end, but they didn’t allow us to go back home. We found out a day before our flight. There was another group that was supposed to arrive the day that we were leaving, but they didn’t come. I think there was a flight, I think we could have gone home. We have to wait until the government says, yes, the state of emergency has finished. I was hoping that it could be a month or two, but what I heard from the labour hire company, it might take more than five to six months again.
We’ve been isolated, no more visitors for us. And you know the scanning they do at the airport? I’m doing that. Before everybody hops in the bus, I have to check them. If somebody is having a high temperature, they’re not supposed to go to work and I have to report that.
We just had Easter. Back home it’s the traditional thing, Easter. Everybody gathers together, we go to church, the children go out camping with their friends. The families can spend a day or two by the beach, around the campfire. After all these activities, we have a big dinner. Everybody had a time to talk to our families, we all did, but it makes us feel really homesick. These people really want to go back home. They are missing their families. I’m missing my family, yes I am. Really.
We are still singing, every night. To be honest with you, it’s a bit hard for us to let go of it. It’s part of our life. We are still singing, yes, sitting 1.5 metres away from each other.