4 Oct 2021

Seasonal work during pandemic not easy for ni-Vanuatu

4:04 pm on 4 October 2021

Ni-Vanuatu workers coming to New Zealand for seasonal employment are enjoying the benefits of a one-way travel bubble, but their mission abroad comes with steep challenges.

Around 150 ni-Vanuatu landed in Christchurch on Monday for work in the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme in New Zealand's South Island.

Ni-Vanuatu RSE workers working for contractor Hortus in the vineyard.

Ni-Vanuatu RSE workers working for contractor Hortus in the vineyard. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

RSE work offers them a chance to earn money to help their families back home, while providing much needed labour for New Zealand's horticulture and viticulture sectors

Coming from a covid-free country, ni-Vanuatu workers are exempt from managed isolation and quarantine at New Zealand's border, and instead isolate at their workplace.

Vanutau's deputy commissioner of Labour, Jalen Willie said the workers have all been required to begin their vaccination process before coming to New Zealand.

"Yeah we are in the process now to put the vaccine as mandatory for all the workers," he said.

"So the (RSE) workers were advised to make sure that they'd received the first dose of the vaccine. And for those who have received the first dose of the vaccine, they are supposed to receive the second dose before boarding the flight."

Vanuatu was the first Pacific country to participate in New Zealand's RSE scheme, and in the last "normal" year before the pandemic, 2019, provided the largest single contingent from any one country, with more than 4-thousand workers, or over a third of all the RSE workers.

The full number of participants from each source country is well down this year, and contractors in the fruit picking sector in particular have been desperate to get as many as possible over to New Zealand.

A ni-Vanuatu doing seasonal work in New Zealand under the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme.

A ni-Vanuatu doing seasonal work in New Zealand under the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

The Vanuatu's National Workers Union has been helping RSE workers coming to New Zealand understand terms of their contract, including various deductions from their pay due to costs for things like transport, accommodation and laundary.

Under some RSE contractors, these costs lumped on workers are prohibitive. Furthermore, under rules set out in some cases by their own government, there are tight restrictions on what workers can do with their time out of work.

According to a union representative, Gremson Valua, it's not always clear to the workers, especially those coming over for the first time, what they are getting into.

"They should understand clearly the content of their contract before signing them, and understand the process of raising the grievances if any arise in New Zealand," he said.

RSE worker in a Hawke's Bay orchard.

RSE worker in a Hawke's Bay orchard. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

He said the union has been helping RSE workers to link up the New Zealand-based Amalgamated Workers Union

Valua said this was of extra importance given how a number of Vanuatu's RSE workers in New Zealand have been unable to return home since the pandemic began, and sometimes get left in limbo between contracts.

"Sometimes they're left without contract and it is for the worker to pay their rent, without job, without working, and this is the other issue they're facing in this Covid."

Difficult times

Ray Wanemut is one of hundreds of RSE workers from Vanuatu on contract in Blenheim. He's been there since February.

As a leader of a group of ni-Vanuatu doing fruit-picking, Wanemut said he's had to lend extra support during a disruptive year or two for many of them.

"Yeah. it's not been easy. We were all mixed up groups, like those that have been here in the pandemic and those that we have got in. There's been a lot of stress. It's been a tough season and it's been a good experience working hard with the boys. It's like being back at home, dealing with your kids."

Some of Wanemut's colleagues are about to return home this week, replaced by some of the ni-Vanuatu workers arriving.

RSE worker offloads apples into a crate in a Hawke's Bay orchard.

RSE worker offloads apples into a crate in a Hawke's Bay orchard. Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

He plans to return home at the end of summer, and said he has made the most of his time working here.

"For me in person, it really helps my family a lot. Coming out to New Zealand really helps. Now I'm building my house - it's about complete. And it helps my wife, helps my kids with school fees, helps everyday needs."

Meanwhile, another 146 ni-Vanuatu RSE workers are expected fly to New Zealand next Monday.

'Not enough fruit to pick' in Australia

Labour officials in Vanuatu say there's great demand for spots in RSE, as well as Australia's Seasonal Workers Programme and Pacific Labour Scheme.

However, the Vanuatu National Workers Union's Tulia Wanemut has been helping organise ni-Vanuatu workers going to Australia.

She said Australia has been asking for more workers, but those who go over often find themselves part of a glut.

"But the biggest problem is many are just working for two to three days a week. So there are many going there, and there's not enough fruit to pick, because there's so many workers.

"So there's not only exploitations (that are a problem), it's also the number of workers that are going there."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs