In March 2020, Stephen Tani joined the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) with 9 other men from Solomon Islands, and was soon recruited by RWM to work in an abattoir in Ararat, Victoria. Not long after the group had settled in, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and changed everything.
After arriving in Australia, the workers spent 2 months adjusting mentally and physically to their new jobs.
“To begin, we could feel it in our muscles but now we’re used to it and our supervisor is a kind, funny man who always teaches us patiently,” says Stephen.
Not long after the group had settled into their new roles and lifestyle, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Australia and changed everything.
Border closures meant the containers used to pack meat at the abattoir were stuck overseas. Production was halted, and the team was stood down from their roles for 2 weeks. Stephen said their employer was supportive throughout that time.
"Work gave us a cash advance and always kept us updated with phone calls," he said.
"They also gave us gardening tools to help keep us busy and we made it our project to clear the garden beds, making room for new vegetables."
Stephen and his team also received support from the wider Ararat community, including from the local church.
"The church gave us food vouchers every week. They said 'we want to help you' so we were very pleased," he said.
Maintaining mental and physical health
Stephen said being part of the church community and practicing faith has been a good thing for the team’s mental health.
“We connected with online services to keep up with our spiritual life. We put our trust in God and because He’s with us, we don’t worry,” he said.
According to Stephen, exercise and being outside has also been beneficial for the group throughout the pandemic.
“If we feel homesick, we go walking. We also exercise or even just sit at the park. It keeps our minds clear.”
Back to work and thinking about the future
The group has now returned to work and the men are earning money to support their various projects and families in Solomon Islands.
“Some of the guys want to build houses, others want to buy cars," Stephen said.
"There are people starting businesses. It’s a lot about supporting communities back home.”
While the money Stephen earns in Australia is helping to support his family, he said the opportunity to learn and gain new experiences was also rewarding.
“It’s not just the money. It’s also about seeing new things and learning skills. So many doors will open for you,” he said.