A group of sailors from Kiribati have had a pandemic-induced career change and become fruit pickers in South Australia’s Riverland.

Key points:

  • The men’s visas will expire in January, but they hope they can stay to earn more money and support their families
  • The Kiribati South Australia Association is working to help them settle in to life in the Riverland
  • The men were among a group of 40 stuck in Brisbane for six months this year

The Pacific Island Council of South Australia (PICSA) helped 14 men, who were stranded in Queensland for six months, to find work.

Seafarer Tokoia Tiemti is now picking blueberries in the Riverland.

“It’s a very hard job, but we enjoy this one — better than nothing,” he said.

Mr Tiemti was one of 40 sailors left stranded in Brisbane after Danish shipping company Maersk ceased operations in Kiribati.

Border closures meant the men were unable to return home and they were effectively left jobless and homeless, but they were not the only ones.

Hundreds of sailors from Kiribati have been waiting for up to two years to return from other countries, including Germany, Fiji, South Korea and Indonesia.

Three Pacific Islanders stand in front of a shopping centre, entrance wearing masks.

The men have needed to buy new clothing to protect them from the hot sun while they are picking.(ABC Rural: Eliza Berlage)

Seafarers landlocked

The 14 men used the partial wages they received from Maersk to pay for their flights from Brisbane to Adelaide after PICSA found them work.

Kiribati still has its border closed and the men hope to extend their visas, which are due to expire in January.

PICSA president Tukini Tavui said it was possible the men, currently employed through labour hire company PLL Contractors, could be registered through the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme next year.

The new program will bring the seasonal worker program and pacific labour scheme together under the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) and Trade with the aim of doubling the number of workers in industries such as agriculture, hospitality and aged care.

A sign that reads

The men have access to cooking and recreational facilities at the hostel.(ABC Rural: Eliza Berlage)

“We’ve had some superficial discussions with DFAT to be able ascertain the best way forward,” Mr Tavui said.

“This arrangement has never been done before because applications are made from offshore but it’s certainly something we are exploring … and we are optimistic that it will proceed.”

Mr Tavui said Kiribati South Australia Association president Tikoba Potter would support the men as they transitioned into their new roles.

“She is going to spend a week or two in the facility to help them settle in,” Mr Tavui said.

A worker from the Pacific Islands stands in front of a tree, wearing a dark T-shirt.

Nabaruru Kataebati said he would use his income from fruit picking to support his children.(ABC Rural: Eliza Berlage)

‘They miss me’

Nabaruru Kataebati said his housemates from Vanuatu had been sharing tips on on how to pick oranges faster.

“They make maybe three times more money than us,” Mr Kataebati said.

“We try to follow the technique but it’s very hard.”

Mr Katebati said he was proud that his work would provide financial support for his big family at home.

“Six children — five girls and only one boy,” he said.

“They miss me also, especially the wife.

Stranded Kiribati sailors find work picking fruit in SA’s Riverland
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