Staff Writer l Palladium - Nov 09 2022
From Broccolini Fields to Standing Ovations – How a Group of Seasonal Workers Made Music in Australia

Kevin Bong and the team on the job harvesting broccolini at Pitchford Produce.

For many regional businesses across Australia, Pacific and Timorese workers are critical, ensuring crops can be harvested, meat processed, and more. The Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme is a temporary labour migration program that matches Pacific Island and Timorese workers with Australian employers for seasonal jobs for up to nine months, and longer-term roles for between one and four years.

But in one community, Kevin Bong and his fellow ni-Vanuatu seasonal workers developed a positive reputation in the South Australian community of Goolwa – and it’s not just for harvesting vegetables.

The group of men, who are working at family owned Pitchford Produce through the Australian Government’s PALM scheme, have formed a string band and have become regular performers at venues around town. “We started by playing at the local church here. One day after service, someone invited us to perform at the Victor Harbor markets and it became a recurring spot,” says Bong, the team leader for the group.

“We played there on a fortnightly basis and felt embraced by the community. Then we took up other opportunities to perform, like a concert in one of the parks and local open mic nights,” he added. The band includes guitars, a ukulele, shakers, bongos, a tambourine, and a traditional ni-Vanuatu bush bass.

“Most of the instruments we play were donated by community members. Knowing that people appreciate our music like this makes us feel welcomed here,” Bong explains. “String band is our national music, and we sing in our national language, but it’s the rhythm that people are after. It makes them happy.”

Pitchford Produce Finance and Administration Officer Jane Grainger has seen the joy that the group has bought to the community first-hand. “Everyone knows of them or has heard them. I remember one open mic performance where people came specifically to see them. It was a packed house, and they received a standing ovation. It was incredible,” she says.

“They’ve made many friends and everywhere you see them, they are talking to people.”

Mutual Benefits

Bong and his team represent many PALM scheme workers around Australia who are not only filling critical labour shortages facing Australian employers but are also bringing new traditions and cultures to remote and regional communities.

They are filling church halls, bolstering sports teams, volunteering for local groups, and sharing their national foods and stories. At the same time, working in Australia has allowed Bong and his fellow PALM scheme workers to earn money and develop skills to support their families and communities back in the Pacific.

“The reason I work in Australia is to support my family. I’ve bought land and I’ve built a house. I can support my 4 children,” Bong adds. “But everyone has different goals. One of the guys is a fisherman back home. With the money earned at Pitchford Produce, he bought a solar panel that could run his boat and equipment. He’s running his own business off it.”

“Someone else has been able to buy a car and a bus to start up his taxi company,” he notes.

Through the PALM scheme, workers can take roles in Australia under a long-term (one to 4 years) or seasonal (up to 9 months) visa. Seasonal workers return home after the harvesting season and come back to Australia once it begins again. But because of COVID-19, Bong and most of his team could not travel home after the usual 6–9-month period in Australia. And in July 2022, after 18 months, they were finally able to return home.

Just not before giving one final performance at a local venue before their departure. "It was like a final hurrah. But not quite final. We hope to have them back here in 2023," Grainger adds hopefully.

“I am happy with this season we have just finished,” Bong notes. “We had a good time and it felt like we really connected with the community. I absolutely plan to come back.”

Read 'Pacific Workers in Australia Weigh the Emotional Costs of Migrating for Work' or learn more about the PALM scheme at their website