25 Dec 2021

An RSE Christmas in Aotearoa

6:00 pm on 25 December 2021

Many RSE workers around the motu are stuck here for Christmas and New Years. So what do they do? Our Hawke's Bay reporter Tom Kitchin spoke to some.

RSE workers So'o Fala (left) from Samoa and Joel Bruno Lee from the Solomon Islands, are celebrating Christmas by the apple orchards of Hawke’s Bay this year.

RSE workers So'o Fala (left) from Samoa and Joel Bruno Lee from the Solomon Islands, are celebrating Christmas by the apple orchards of Hawke's Bay this year. Photo: RNZ / Tom Kitchin

The glaring Hawke's Bay sun stares down on the hundreds, if not thousands of apple trees on the outskirts of Napier.

The mercury's reaching the late 20s, but this might be a bit colder than what Joel Bruno Lee from the Solomon Islands and So'o Fala from Samoa are used to.

They're long haulers at T&G Global, one of the biggest apple producers in New Zealand.

Lee has been back and forth from New Zealand to his home in the Solomon Islands for 14 years.

For Fala, it's seven seasons.

Neither have returned home in two years, since before the pandemic began.

They each have a daughter that they have not seen face-to-face in that time.

For Christmas, it's all about the food and sport, even if Covid-19 restrictions and bubble requirements have quietened it down.

"We were planning to have a big sport day with some of our brothers here - putting on volleyball tournament, think we cancelled that and carry on in our own bubbles," Fala says.

The bubbles are strict and workers have only been able to keep to them since the pandemic began.

"We're only keeping to our teams - for myself we have 10 under my leadership, " Fala says - they are both team leaders.

"For Samoan and our culture it's mainly food, as long as we have a lot of food on Christmas.

"As long as we have a pig, we'll be good. We usually roast a whole pig, if not we can just we can just cut it in pieces and roast it.

"We're going to play some sports and make some funny games to keep our minds away from families and that."

Even if they miss their wives, daughters and extended families back home.

"Hard not being with families but yeah it's all right - as long as we put that smile on their face by sending them some money, yeah we should be good," Fala says.

"We're just going to have Christmas calling them on the phone, and chat with them, do video calls, stuff like that,'' Bruno says.

Shelly Beckett, who looks after pastoral care for RSEs at T&G says a Christmas meal will be provided.

"We're going to provide them with a lot of fresh vegetables and hams so they can more of a traditional Kiwi kind of Christmas, and maybe some pavlovas for their desserts."

The work won't stop either - they're thinning apples and will just get the statutory days as a bonus rest.

Fala and Lee are only a small share of the RSE workers staying in New Zealand.

At T&G alone, 261 RSE workers are currently in Hawke's Bay.

For Lee, he says coming back for nearly a decade and a half has meant he has been able to help his family for a long time.

"I'm able to build my own home from the money I've earned from New Zealand - it's really helpful ... now I'm in the process to build another home. All the efforts that are put in here, I'm sending back home."

It's the same for Fala.

"I've been able to build a nice home for my family and even buy them a car, and looking to helping my siblings go to school, paying for all their school fees and that. Coming here has really placed my family financially."

Even if it means not seeing their young daughters face-to-face as they grow up, a video call is never far away.