21 May 2024

False starts before RSE workers board flights for Vanuatu

7:50 pm on 21 May 2024
RSE workers from Samoa working in Bostock orchard, Hastings.

File pic Photo: RNZ / Anusha Bradley

One employer has described the nightmare of trying to get his seasonal workers home to Vanuatu after the national air carrier went into voluntary liquidation.

Air Vanuatu grounded all its flights at the start of this month, leaving more than 1400 Ni Vanuatu stranded in New Zealand.

While Immigration New Zealand has extended their visas, employers have been scrambling to try and find alternative flights for them.

Many workers do not have passports which makes securing flights even harder.

Charley Shem was one of the 47 fruit pickers heading back to Vanuatu on Monday evening.

He said when they heard all flights were grounded, panic set in, with no money coming in and no return flight.

"It's a stress aye, because we're not making any more money to send home, so we just have to talk to our families that we can't send any more money or credits or whatever."

Shem, who has four children waiting at home, has been away for six months. With two children under two he was desperate to get back.

When asked what he was most excited for when going home Shem said: "Just to cuddle them up, have a good time with them and just being with the family, that's the most important thing."

The workers flew on an Air New Zealand flight on Monday night, stopping off in the Fijian city of Nadi for a night, before boarding a Fiji Airways flight to Port Vila.

Jonothan was also counting down till he got to see his family but was worried for those still stuck in limbo in New Zealand.

He said the issue needed to be sorted as soon as possible as the RSE scheme was a vital economic lifeline for Ni-Vanuatu.

"You know a lot of stress back home because there's no work and in Vanuatu the minimum wage is not so good and Ni-Vanuatu want to come here and feed money to their family."

Some of the workers do not have passports and instead have a type of ID card that helps them travel between home and this country for work.

However, the cards are not recognised by Fiji.

For those without passports, the situation is more complicated.

They can only fly directly to Port Vila, which means they must fly on Solomon Airlines, which has been stopping off in Port Vila on the way to Honiara.

Vineyard workers split up

For this reason, the owner of Cromwell vineyard Grape Vision James Dicey has had to split up his workers and put them on different flights.

"You don't want to end up with some guys being sent back from Fiji back to New Zealand again because the identification isn't correct so getting that detail right requires a hell of a lot of work in the background."

Dicey said there have been plenty of false starts which has been upsetting for the group.

"They've been working their arses off, they've saved all their money... and then, sorry your national carrier has folded up. You know, it's pretty frustrating.

"I think there's a lot of sort of resentment and anger towards the mismanagement."

By law, the Growers Cooperative must pay for half of the workers' flights home and the workers pay for the other half themselves.

Hastings RSE worker Manu Berry said having to find more cash to pay for another flight, when he already had one booked on Air Vanuatu, was frustrating.

Berry said Vanuatu's government should have done more to help those impacted by the airline's liquidation.

"You know, they've already got our money and they asked us to buy our ticket again, so we are not really very happy about the government, but we really want to go back to Vanuatu, so we have to do it."

Dicey said the true cost of arranging new travel to get workers home was around $100,000.

He said there needed to be a new plan for the way RSE workers travelled between Aotearoa and Vanuatu because they have been relying heavily on Air Vanuatu.

"There's no reason why Air Vanuatu should have gone bankrupt, something in my view sits underneath this and I don't quite know what it is."

The Growers Cooperative would need to look at the issues, he said.

"We have to try and navigate it and find a pathway forward that works for everybody."

Growers remain hopeful workers due in New Zealand for the winter pruning season would be able to arrive on returning flights out of Vanuatu.

In the meantime, the main priority was getting those that were stuck in New Zealand back home safely.

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