Kevin Bong and his fellow ni-Vanuatu seasonal workers have developed a positive reputation in the South Australian community of Goolwa - and not just for harvesting vegetables.
The group of men, who are working at family owned Pitchford Produce through the Australian Government’s Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme, have formed a string band and 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,” said Kevin, 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,” said Kevin.
“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.”
“They’ve made many friends and everywhere you see them, they are talking to people,” she added.
'Everyone has different goals'
Kevin and his team represent many PALM scheme workers around Australia who are not only filling critical labour shortages facing Australian employers but 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 Kevin 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,” said Kevin.
“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 said.
Through the PALM scheme, workers can take up roles in Australia under a long-term (one to 4 years) or seasonal (up to 9 months) visa stream. Seasonal workers return home after the harvesting season and come back to Australia once it begins again.
Because of COVID-19, Kevin and most of his team could not travel home after the usual 6 to 9-month period in Australia. In July 2022, after 18 months, they were finally able to do this.
Of course, the band gave one final performance at a local venue before leaving.
"It was like a final hurrah. But not quite final. We hope to have them back here in 2023," said Jane.
“I am happy with this season we have just finished,” said Kevin.
“We had a good time and it felt like we really connected with the community. I absolutely plan to come back,” he said.