Burlington Berries' Tongan workers supported by workmates

SOCIAL SUPPORT: Kate Sutherland and Craig Owen, of Owens Pacific Workforce, with Burlington Berries' Tongan harvest team. Picture: Supplied
SOCIAL SUPPORT: Kate Sutherland and Craig Owen, of Owens Pacific Workforce, with Burlington Berries' Tongan harvest team. Picture: Supplied

A Tongan worker’s average salary is less than $A600 per month, so a stable berry-picking job in Tasmania is very attractive.

That is until something terrible happens at home.

In mid February category 4 cyclone Gita hit Southern Tonga, the region where three-quarters of the Tongan population lives and the damage to homes, farms and businesses was catastrophic.

Cressy business Burlington Berries employs 120 Tongans, sourced and coordinated by Owens Pacific Workforce.

Owens and Burlington Berries identified 20 people working at the Cressy farm who lost their homes, Burlington Berries managing director Kate Sutherland said.

“Their families have had to move to friends and relatives until help comes and have many long months of repairs and rebuilds ahead of them,” Ms Sutherland said.

“At Burlington we recognised we could not help everyone in Tonga, but we could make a difference to help these 20 families.”

That help came in the form of collecting donations from employees for their 20 workmates.

“It was a difficult time for all of our Tongans knowing that they would like to go home, but recognising the best outcome was to provide financial support by staying in Tasmania,” Ms Sutherland said.

Tonga has a geographically-isolated population of about 100,000 people, living on subsistence agriculture with a small resource, production and export base, the federal Foreign Affairs and Trade department said.

Money sent back to families by Tongans working in Australia forms a significant part of family income.

“Approximately one quarter of Tongan households find it difficult to meet their basic needs, especially those on outer islands and those who are not in receipt of overseas remittances,” the department’s Tonga overview states.

“Remittances from Tongans working overseas are an important element of the economy, representing an estimated 26 per cent of Gross Domestic Product in 2015,” the overview said.

Burlington Berries and Owens Pacific Workforce committed to matching the donations raised in the month after Cyclone Gita dollar for dollar to maximise benefits for the workers.

The fundraising total was $22,000, which meant each worker received $1100 or, in Tongan terms, almost two months’ salary.

“Bear in mind the average salary in Tonga is equivalent of $A572 per month. Donations came from co-workers, supervisors, management, ex-employees and sister companies. It brought everyone together in common cause,” Ms Sutherland said.