Welcoming Seasonal Workers
Working for Justice Advocate Rev. Loni Vaitohi plays an important role as a pastoral carer for seasonal workers from the Pacific who come to work in North East Victoria and beyond.
Once a month he conducts a service from the chapel in the caravan park in Merrigum, part of the Greater Shepparton region.
The services are attended by workers from ni Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa and Papua New Guinea.
As well as providing an important time of fellowship and connection to their culture, this is an opportunity for Loni to get to know the workers.
He participates in the briefing session to ensure newcomers are aware of their rights.
As a Tongan-Australian minister, Loni is a welcome friendly face and someone they can trust to help with interpretation or to speak to about issues of safety, wages or relationships.
In the midst of the pandemic, seasonal workers have faced a whole new set of challenges, from loss of work, to fatigue, mental health and being more isolated from family. Some workers have not been able to send cards or gifts to their family. Those who have lost work were not adequately informed about Government support measures and have been forced to rely on family and friends. Other challenges have been confusion over who pays for quarantine.
“I would argue that pastoral care is absolutely essential to the welfare of the workers,” said Loni.
When preparing services attended by workers from different islands, different villages, different denominations as well as other faiths, Loni said a great deal of pastoral sensitivity is required.
“The service is prepared and delivered in Tongan. When others Pacific Island workers join in the service we use both the English language and the Tongan language.”
“An Indigenous Elder has been invited to the last three welcoming service, which happen every year when the majority of the workers arrive, around November. The Elder gives permission for the workers to work on their traditional land and the Islanders get an insight into the sacredness of their task.”
“It is not unusual for residents in Merrigum to join us in these services. Merrigum does not have a church presence or worship services.”
“On the last Sunday of every month, myself and my family, and the employer and his family, prepare and serve food for the whole group.”
Loni also recently travelled to Forbes in NSW for a service in a Uniting Church building with Pacific workers there.
Recognising the importance of this ministry, the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania have funded a grant for pastoral care for seasonal workers over the next five years.
Last year Loni was interviewed by ABC Radio about the important work he is doing. Listen here: https://www.abc.net.au/radio-australia/programs/pacificmornings/rev-loni-vaitohi/11743284
Photos above: (Left) Worship service at the Chapel in the Park in Merrigum. (Right) Water melon pickers in Forbes NSW, waiting to welcome Rev. Loni to conduct their service.