19 Nov 2021

The life of a foreign seasonal worker

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 19 November 2021
Pacific Islander doing seasonal work under the RSE scheme in Hawke's Bay.

Pacific Islander doing seasonal work under the RSE scheme in Hawke's Bay. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Ray Wanemut has two lives.

He's from Port Vila in Vanuatu where he has a wife and three children, including a baby girl he has never met.

But he spends most of his year in New Zealand working in vineyards and orchards as a Recognised Seasonal Worker.

Ray has been coming every year since 2013, except last year when the pandemic kept him at home.

Today, The Detail hears about Ray's life here and why he chooses to leave behind his young family for several months to do work that many cannot or will not do.

"It’s tough," he says from the kitchen table of the unit in Blenheim he shares with 23 other workers.

And this year he won't go home for Christmas because it is too difficult to get a flight and his work visa has been extended.

"We're here to earn money to help the families, so there's two sides of the coin. It's hard but if I go home, with this covid there's nothing, so it’s better to stay here."

Ray is team leader of 23 men from Vanuatu. He tells Sharon Brettkelly about the rules they must live by and the racist abuse they have faced in previous years.

But he also talks fondly of New Zealand - "it’s my second home" - and says the RSE scheme has helped many families build their own homes and have a better life.

Ray's eldest son finds it difficult without him.

"But when I go home I talk to him, ‘this is what Daddy's doing, for you not for me, so I can build up a future for you’. 

"Another three years and that's going to be it and I'll have time to spend with them for years to come."

The workers are vital to the horticulture industry here and to their own countries' economies but it's not an easy life. Sometimes they are treated poorly or they run into trouble.

Stuff senior business journalist Dileepa Fonseka says stories of substandard accommodation and rigid restrictions on the workers – who are the most temporary of temporary migrants - are not uncommon.

Fonseka last year uncovered stories of workers stranded in New Zealand, without work or proper housing for winter, because their home countries did not want them back.

"There was also another worry that was going on in the background which was, if these countries take them back will they be able to send them again (due to closed borders), and if they can't send them the (home) country loses a huge amount of earnings."

Fonseka explains that the seasonal worker schemes are unique in that the employers have a pastoral care responsibility. They have to provide housing and transport but are also charged with the workers' wellbeing.

But he says the regulations need an overhaul to ensure there are no conflicts of interest between the employers, the Labour Inspectorate and the pastoral carers.

Ray Wanemut says he and his team are free to go out and about, they go fishing and sight-seeing. But visitors are banned from their housing.

"I have no idea why,’ he says. “This is not a jail."


PIJF Photo: .