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Is this Australia's first meat workers' choir?

Is this Australia's first meat workers' choir?

14 June, 2022

Pacific Islanders working at a Brisbane abattoir are using singing to keep homesickness at bay.

The 40-strong choir formed after Samoan and Solomon Islander workers at Australian Country Choice's Brisbane facility started meeting after work for singing sessions.

After management heard about the singalongs, an electronic keyboard and a guitar arrived.

So too did an invitation to hold an Easter concert for staff and friends.

Keeping home alive

The performance featured hymns sung back home to celebrate Easter as well as traditional dances.

"Two different nationalities getting together and singing together was just outstanding, and really rewarding for them and for everyone else here at ACC," said chief operating officer Andrew Ross.

Malo Sione, who works in the office and packing area, has sung in church choirs all her life.

"The reason why I'm here is for the future of my family, my little family of three kids and my husband residing in my beautiful country of Samoa," she said.

Of the 800 staff at ACC's abattoir, 10 per cent are from the Pacific Islands.

They're in Australia on working visas approved under the federal government's Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS).

Mr Ross said staff admired the workers, many of whom have left children, spouses and elderly parents for up to three years.

"It goes without saying, but it's something some of us Aussies could never do," said Mr Ross.

"They've done the tough roads leaving their home country to come to Australia, and whilst it's not home, you have to make it feel like home, and they have to get the rewards so they can help their family."

Sacrifices for family

Solomon Islander Joyce Siofa'a, who often sings while she works, said the sacrifice is worth it to earn wages she can't earn at home.

"It's good money, I'm using it to build my house, and as I'm the oldest in the family, I'm helping my parents," she said.

Samoan, Afa Ese, is saving for his children and is buying another house.

"It's a long time, I miss my wife and kids, but I am lucky to be in Australia right now. I am so happy," said Mr Ese.

 The choirmaster is Siatua Ah Kuoi, who everyone calls Jack.

"My father's a Methodist minister so I grew up singing in choirs. It's in my blood."

The strong 31-year-old to whom moving carcasses around is "like a walk in the park… we are Islanders!" tearfully explained how singing connected him to home, especially his sick father.

"Singing is like an escape for me… my dad, it is the only thing I can talk to him is through music."

Swapping meat for tunes

ACC's general manager of further processing and logistics, Mollie Auvaa, is mum-in-chief to the Pacific Island workers.

It's a role she's comfortable with as she's both a Samoan chieftain and princess.

"They're elected and they go through criteria selected by the government to come and work in Australia," said Ms Auvaa.

"It is quite important they adapt to the Australian culture and do their best, as they're representing their country."

The chronic labour shortage in Australia's meat processing sector is long standing and only worsened during COVID.

Even the arrival of more than 80 workers in the last six months hasn't helped ACC's abattoir run at full capacity.

With the PLS so important to the company, claims some employers and labour hire companies are abusing it by underpaying and exploiting workers, deeply disappoints Andrew Ross.

"We need as an industry to support the labour scheme, and make sure we value it, and see it's not used in the wrong way," Mr Ross said.

"We need to make them part of the industry's future.

"We would not have 84 people here now and would not have another 54 on their way at the end of May if we weren't treating the PLS workers with respect and treating them equally," Mr Ross said.

Choirmaster Jack says singing has connected workers with home, family and church.

"They all come to me and say this is a nice thing. They thank me for that. I don't want anyone to thank me or congratulate me, the only thing I want to see is the smile… the unity that is what I am looking for."