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Saina Tomi is a former non-government school teacher who is now a senior organiser at Samoa First Union (SFU), Samoa’s only private sector union. She has recently been in Australia talking to unionists about her work organising members in Samoa and those in Australia as part of the seasonal workers program.

At an event in Sydney, Saina tells her audience that prior to the establishment of SFU in 2015, there were many cases of unfair dismissal in Samoa and workers were not aware of their rights. At the time, Saina was a legal secretary at a law firm that took on pro bono cases for workers. Her firm was involved in the founding of SFU alongside Samoan members of First Union NZ and with support from the National Union of Workers (now United Workers Union) and Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA.

Saina never imagined she would become a founding member of SFU. She was “just there to assist”, she says. Yet Saina is not one to sit on the sidelines. Before she became involved in union organising, she represented Samoa in both volleyball and netball and was one of the first to get women's rugby off the ground in Samoa.

She participated in union training and, once SFU was formally established, Saina was appointed to look after the union. She has never looked back.

“During that first year, I was learning each day,” Saina said. “I experienced something like a calling from God. I was helping workers from Samoa – it drew my heart to this work. At the time the minimum wage was $2.30 tala an hour ($AU1.20). It was so low paid that all that could be bought for that amount of money was a bread roll (with no butter) or two bottles of water. Comparatively, a bottle of Coca-Cola was $2.50 tala, despite Coke being manufactured in Samoa.”

One of Saina’s first campaigns was the ‘Fight for Three’, a campaign to lift the minimum wage to $3 tala an hour ($AU1.60). In 2020, the minimum wage was finally lifted.

In Samoa, public sector workers receive a minimum of $4 tala an hour, so this increase to the minimum wage was an important step in closing the wage gap between the public and private sectors. The goal is to secure a living wage of at least $5 tala an hour.

In Samoa, non-government school teachers earn $3.5 tala an hour ($AU1.80) while teachers at public schools start at $5 tala an hour.

In recent years, more and more Samoans have been signing up to become seasonal workers in Australia or New Zealand. Initially it was unemployed workers who signed up. But now many skilled workers – including teachers in both Samoa's private and public sectors – are leaving their jobs to take up places in these better-paid schemes, spelling potential disaster for Samoa’s education system and its economic development.

An important aspect of Saina’s work is supporting workers through the seasonal worker process – from induction to helping them with applications and assisting them through the challenges of wage theft, exploitation and unsafe working conditions. SFU has been involved in the development of a National Seasonal Workers Policy to address these issues.

While SFU has a lot to celebrate, there is still a lot to do. Saina’s dream is to oversee the first collective bargaining agreement between the union and a private company. She is optimistic this will happen later this year or next year.

Samoa First Union is a project funded by members of Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA. It does not attract any funding from the Australian federal government’s international aid budget.

Around the Globe brings you international news about injustices and workers’ rights. If injustice exists anywhere, it exists everywhere.

Katie Camarena