When this group of 12 Fijian meatworkers arrived in Australia in January 2020, they quickly settled into their new jobs and made connections in their local community. Neighbours gave them furniture and a TV, and they started playing footy at the local rugby club. Then in March, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The 12 Fijian Pacific Labour Scheme workers landed in Australia, freshly recruited by the Regional Workforce Management labour hire company to work at an abattoir in Biggenden, south east Queensland.
In just a few short weeks the men learned the basics of their new roles, settled into their shared houses in the nearby town of Childers and started to make connections in their local community.
Neighbours gave them furniture and a second-hand TV so they could watch their favourite Rugby Sevens matches. The rugby club lent them football boots and jerseys and they played in a few matches. They even started having barbecues with the locals and attending a few church services around town.
Then, in March, COVID-19 hit Australia – and so did all of the restrictions that came with it.
One worker, George Bakani, said their employer at Big Meats immediately made sure the men had everything they needed during lockdown, and helped them understand what they had to do to stay safe.
“He said to us, ‘for now you should not go anywhere, just go to work, and come home each day’,” George said.
Big Meats quickly introduced increased hygiene measures for all of its workers. According to George, staff at the abattoir now wear face masks every day, regularly wash their hands, and strictly limit their trips to the shops and other public places.
“We are using a lot of hand sanitiser, staying 2 metres apart and staying indoors a lot,” he said.
Keeping their distance at work and at home
During the lockdown, the business kept up its tradition of treating all of its workers to a burger and fries for lunch once a week.
“We are very thankful for our boss,” said George. “During all this time, he has brought us lunch from Biggenden town on Thursdays. We are just loving it!”
The company arranged to bring in large shipping containers to use as lunch rooms, so the workers could be comfortable and maintain social distancing during their burger breaks and smokoes.
Another worker, Isoa Tuinasaoalau, said the men’s living arrangements outside work hours also make it easy for them to maintain social distancing at home.
“We are lucky, have a good house here. We have 4 of us in a house and we have 3 houses [between 12 workers],” he said.
Staying in touch and supporting their families in Fiji
Home wifi was installed for the men by their employer when they first arrived in Childers, and George said the men all talk regularly with their relatives and friends back home.
“We chat every day on Facebook – after work we contact them and share everything,” he said.
In the few months they have been in Australia, the Fijians have been able to provide a lot of support for their families.
“I am the oldest. I have 5 siblings and my mother is a single mum. I am the only one in my family working right now,” said Fijian worker Hujun Mingnan.
“I send home money every week, and because of coronavirus I have increased the amount I am sending. With the money I am earning here, I can support them more.
“In this short period of time, I have really helped my family,” Hujun said.