By Johnny Blades
Pacific Islanders participating in New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme say the work is of great benefit to them and their communities back in the islands.
They are also now considered indispensable to New Zealand’s viticulture and horticulture industries.
There are about 9000 of them in the country this season, both men and women and from a range of island countries: about 4000 ni-Vanuatu, 2000 from each of Samoa and Tonga, almost 500 Solomon Islanders, and the rest are made up of people from Fiji, Tuvalu, Kiribati and Papua New Guinea.
They are in New Zealand picking apples, stone fruit or vegetables, pruning grapes, manning packing houses and doing other hot, gruelling work – in regions including Nelson, Marlborough, Central Otago, the Bay of Plenty and Hawke’s Bay.
This season in Hawke’s Bay, there are about 3500 Pacific RSE workers.
Working to bring money home
Nixon Asugeni is a Solomon Islander who has been working under the RSE scheme for more than six straight seasons.
I met him and a gaggle of his countrymen, who were employed through Focus Contracting, at the Angus Inn in Hastings, where about 80 RSE workers have been staying.
“We have to work so that we bring the money back home for our family,” he said.
“The thing that we do back home is building the family, especially building the houses, school fees for our kids, sending them to school, university sometimes.”
It was about 32°C that day and Mr Asugeni admitted that, even for Pacific Islanders, working in such heat was challenging. Earlier that day, I felt like I was about to die of heat exhaustion while walking through a couple of orchards in Twyford.
I asked another Solomon Islander, Andrew Genima’asua, if he and other workers had the chance to go for a beer after a day’s work in the sun.
It was something they had little time for, he said. Their main social outlet was generally the church.
“Sometimes when we get free we can go but if we get busy we cannot go to the church. We just keep working. I send my money to help my family and pay my kids’ school fees.”
Whatever their nationality, the goals of the RSE workers were usually the same: to earn money that would help them and their community back home.
Tuuta Lavemai, from Tonga, has done five years of RSE work.
“We have no work in Tonga, no money, not enough jobs in Tonga, ” he explained. “We have a lot of jobs in New Zealand, to make money. Really, really good.”
Grape pruner Smith Isaiah, from Vanuatu, who was in his third year in Hawke’s Bay, said that achieving his goal was starting to get easier.
“Not like the first year when I was here, it’s hard for me. But this year… it’s much easier. So I took the money back to build a new home, start a new living, because the cyclone damaged all the houses, so I sent the money back to build a new home, start a new business.”
It’s approaching a decade since the RSE scheme began.
There were some early teething problems such as occasional incidents related to workers’ socialising, or issues over labour conditions under some contractors.
But, over the years, the system has become more efficient and the conditions have improved.
Returning workers have adapted to life in New Zealand and the productivity has increased. All the contractors I spoke to in Hawke’s Bay pointed out that, in these industries, New Zealanders often weren’t up for the work.
Anthony Rarere is the general manager for Pick Hawke’s Bay, a co-operative of 42 different orchards, which employs over 300 RSE workers.
“These industries have struggled historically with maintaining adequate labour supply because it’s always been seen as low-skilled work,” he said.
“It’s definitely hard work – very physically demanding, getting up early on cold days, hot days, rainy days… so it’s not very appealing.”
The workers generally earn a minimum rate of $NZ16.50 an hour. Most can also get paid additionally for higher output, meaning a worker can often earn over $200 a day in peak season.
While New Zealand’s RSE scheme is increasingly seen as a win-win arrangement for contractors and workers, Australia has been slow to offer seasonal work to people from neighbouring Pacific Island countries.
Australia’s version of the RSE scheme only took shape in the past year or so, remains at a low level and is currently plagued by reports that Pacific workers are being ripped off.
‘Everyone wants them’
Back in New Zealand, there is growing demand for the Pacific workers.
Echoing the lament of Hawke’s Bay apple growers, viticulture industry managers have spoken of a dearth in general labour supply.
The co-director of another RSE participant company, Jonathan Buck, who manages the Woodthorpe Terraces vineyards, said this season had highlighted how much the industry relied on Pacific workers.
“Yeah, if we had another four at least, I think, that would really help us out. We’re just finding ourselves having to postpone jobs or get other people in at short notice to help catch up. So there’s only so many of them around. Everyone wants them.”
Mr Rarere said that orchards in his co-operative had told him that they wouldn’t be in business if it weren’t for RSE.
“They’ve had to struggle for so many years to find a consistent, reliable labour source, that it was getting unbearable. Then RSE came around in 2006, 2007, whenever it was… it was a game changer.”
Far from home, for up to seven months at a time, the RSE workers are apart from their family and friends, their home community.
Those early days in New Zealand can be wrenching, especially if climate chaos is ripping at the workers’ villages back home.
I met a group of 12 Fijians who arrived in Hawke’s Bay for their second year of RSE work on the day before Cyclone Winston smashed through Fiji last month.
One of the group, Waqa Nalivou, told me about not being able to connect through to family back home for days, to check if they had survived the storm.
“That Saturday, Sunday, was some of the tough days for us,” he explained.
The Fijians were a solid group and I could see that living and working together as a unit gave them strength at such times.
“What happens back home keeps us strong, keeps us moving forward” said Fijian Necani Qele while up a tree, picking pears, back in the orchard. “We have to earn money, we have to work hard, we have to sweat for it, even though it’s hot, it’s 33°C.”
Not all the workers find it easy to adapt to life in New Zealand. Coming here is a big lifestyle change, but it offers potentially life-changing experiences for the workers.
Knox Misikeni, from the Solomon Islands, said that in the eight seasons he’d been with RSE, he’d taken on many new ideas.
“Then we learn many things here about the lifestyle and things,” he said. “When we go back home, we learn from that and we know how to change some of the things that we saw it here. It makes a difference for us.”
I asked Pick Hawke’s Bay’s Anthony Rarere how effective the Pacific workers were at saving their earnings during a labour season.
“We’ve got guys who go home with nothing,” he admitted, “but that group is getting smaller and the group who are doing something [with their earnings] is getting bigger.”
Pick Hawke’s Bay’s recruitment efforts in the islands, he said, now tended to focus on picking workers who had a clear idea about what they wanted to achieve through the work.
One of the RSE workers spoken to by RNZI, Fijian Ilaisa Doraisavu, said that people back home were increasingly interested in joining the scheme.
“When we went back last year, we’ve been telling them the stories, and they’ve seen what we’re doing in the village: most of the boys have been building houses, extending their houses, some start their small business,” he explained.
“That’s why most of the boys in the village will like to come and join the work that’s being done in New Zealand.”
It might be the best example of how New Zealand is helping the lives of Pacific Island communities. Above all it’s a partnership.