Pete Bumseng, from Vanuatu, working in a vineyard in Cromwell, Central Otago. (Photo: RNZ/ Eva Corlett)

The Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme is the backbone of New Zealand’s horticulture and viticulture industries. 

Since it started in 2007, growers have gained a steady, reliable and efficient workforce — one that wasn’t available to them before. It’s led to increased earnings in the billions.

In return, Pacific RSE workers get paid far above anything they could earn at home.  

It’s supposed to be a tightly controlled system, where everyone wins. But stories of workers being treated badly and substandard accommodation continue to come out.

Often, these are rooted in concerns around the scheme’s wider conditions and whether they’re really doing right by workers. How fair can the system be when RSEs and their workers operate under a different set of rules from everyone else in the country? 

It’s a question E-Tangata’s Teuila Fuatai grapples with in our coverage of the RSE scheme this week.

Here’s what she found when she spent a weekend with ni-Vanuatu RSE workers in Central Otago. Teuila was with her friend Leina Isno, who is a translator for ni-Vanuatu RSE workers.

 

Central Otago apple orchard in February, 2023. (Photo: Teuila Fuatai)

Earnscleugh Hall is about five minutes drive from Alexandra. It’s on the back road to Clyde and it’s surrounded by orchards and vineyards.

When Leina and I arrive, there’s a couple of cars and vans parked up. It’s dusty and hot. A group of RSE workers are waiting in the shade of poplars near the road. We’re told more are coming.

Today is the first Saturday of February. The cherry harvest has just finished and they’re about two-thirds through the busy part of the summer harvesting season. There’s lots of work and long days ahead, and plenty of money to be made. Many RSE workers worked earlier today and they’ll be back on Tuesday after Waitangi Day.

Leina is a translator for ni-Vanuatu workers on the RSE scheme in Central Otago. She grew up in Malekula, Vanuatu, and moved to New Zealand about 20 years ago. Down here in the South Island, she’s among a tiny number of people who are able to easily swing between English and Bislama. She’s most often asked to translate for an RSE worker when something’s gone wrong — like when a worker has landed in the district court.

From the outside, I’ve always thought the RSE scheme was unfair and exploitative.

It’s a system that isolates workers from their families and homes — and, while they’re here, from other New Zealanders too — for the purpose of maximising work capacity and profits. New Zealand employers are in charge — and those on the ground, operating under different standards from anyone else in the country, are all Pacific.

Since the scheme began 16 years ago, Pacific workers in their thousands have been eager to come here. This season, up to 19,000 workers from the Pacific were approved for jobs New Zealanders generally avoid.

By far the biggest supplier of RSE workers is Vanuatu (population around 330,000), which has more than 5,000 workers here this season. Then there’s Sāmoa (around 3,000) and Tonga, whose numbers have dropped from a pre-Covid high of around 2,000.

And despite being paid a base rate around the minimum wage, and having to put up with restrictions that most New Zealand workers wouldn’t tolerate, Pacific workers keep coming back, year after year.

Much of the coverage of Pacific RSE workers has tended to paint them as hapless victims of the scheme, without agency or choices. But that picture seemed too simplistic, and didn’t align with what I know about Pacific people. How might I find out more about the workers, and what’s driven their decisions to come to New Zealand?

When I talk to Leina about the scheme, she suggests we go to Central Otago and talk to the ni-Vanuatu workers there.

So that’s what we did.

***

By 5pm, I’ve counted 58 workers inside Earnscleugh Hall.

It’s an old-school community hall with a big stage and a piano at the front. Wooden floorboards slide into the walls and match the panelling that sweeps halfway up. One of Leina’s contacts has organised it for today’s meeting.

Four women sit at the front. I’ll meet three of them later — Annie, Noellina and her younger sister Milene. The men fill the rest of the benches and seats around the hall. Right down the back are the two grocery bags of sweet buns and Just Juice I’ve brought. It’s probably only enough for half of the crowd that’s turned up.

One of the workers opens with a prayer, and then it’s a hymn. Leina and I are on the stage, with a mic the workers have provided. It’s more formal than I was expecting and we need to let everyone know what the meeting is about. Many have turned up because a call had gone out from some of the senior workers asking them to come to a gathering that afternoon.

Leina and I introduce ourselves and tell them why we’re there. Leina goes between English and Bislama, translating when necessary.

I talk a bit about E-Tangata, where I work, and why I want to hear from workers about their experience of the scheme, and about how it works for them and their families back home.

A few of them offer observations. There’ve been problems around sick days and payslips. There’s a question about the living wage in New Zealand — and comments about a push to get all their employers paying a base rate to match it.

Someone mentions the minimum wage of about $3 an hour in Vanuatu, and what workers earn back home. Everyone agrees the RSE scheme pays well and makes a big difference to their families.

It’s not an easy conversation. The workers don’t know Leina or me, and the room is packed, so making any kind of comment feels like a formal announcement at a town hall meeting. My lack of Bislama doesn’t help. Essentially, we’re two outsiders who’ve turned up asking questions about their work and their living conditions.

But we persevere for about an hour. We push through the stilted conversation and our discomfort of feeling exposed on stage. I think it’s a way for the workers to suss out Leina and me, to see if it’s okay to speak openly with us.

One of the men eventually says what must be weighing on a few minds: “If we tell you about something that’s going wrong, is there a way for you to raise it with the bosses that will help us?”

***

Noellina Meltenoven, a former bank supervisor in Vanuatu, now a supervisor in the packhouse at Dunstan Hills in Alexandra. (Photo supplied)

In New Zealand, the Recognised Seasonal Employers (RSE) and their workers must, by law, follow a special set of rules on employment, migration, housing and health settings.

The rules cover everything from the length of time a worker can be here (RSE worker visas last for about seven months), to pay and contract obligations, and the minimum legal dimensions for worker accommodation.

Employers are responsible for workers’ general welfare. They pay for half the cost of the airfares to get them to New Zealand — and they pay a penalty if workers overstay.

Once workers are here, employers are responsible for providing adequate accommodation, and for seeing that they can get to work okay, and have access to a doctor. They also decide how much to charge them for rent and transport, which is then automatically deducted from their pay packets.

For many of the RSE workers who I meet over several days in Central Otago, being part of the scheme means a bunch of firsts. First time getting a passport. First time on a plane. First time out of Vanuatu. First real job. First time seeing and signing an employment contract. First look at a rental agreeement. And first ever payslip.

Even the most experienced workers remember their first season. How foreign everything was, and how much there was to learn. Not just about the work, but about “the Kiwi way”. There’s no way for workers to grasp what life is like as an RSE worker until they experience the work, the freezing mornings, the homesickness, the months away from family . . . and, of course, the reward of a regular income.

As I listen to these experiences, where workers and employers are trying to manage different cultures, backgrounds, and language barriers, the rules of the RSE start to make more sense. The power employers have over their workers presents itself differently — as a practical approach to keeping workers safe and work-ready in New Zealand.

It’s why RSEs have to do a lot more for their workers than other employers in New Zealand. For example, workers don’t need to look for a rental property because accommodation is the employer’s responsibility. They also don’t need to worry about getting to and from work each day because organising transport is also on the employer.

The flipside is that RSE workers have to live with the decisions their employer makes. That includes the rates charged for rent and transport, which are automatically deducted from pay packets. If workers disagree with the amount, or if something’s wrong with the accommodation or transport — and particularly if an employer is one of the “bad apples” — the options for putting it right are limited.

Workers are expected, in the first instance, to raise it with their employer, and then with MBIE, the ministry that has oversight of RSE. But this requires a level of English and knowledge of the New Zealand system that most workers don’t have — and without a skilled advocate (which Vanuatu has lacked until recently), and a direct pathway to MBIE, the problems remain unresolved.

It’s this power imbalance which drives much of the criticism of the scheme.

At the end of last year, a report from the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner, Saunoamaali’i Karanina Sumeo, identified cases of worker mistreatment and substandard accommodation in the RSE scheme.

It said the lack of worker rights and protections, combined with a lack of oversight and regulation of employers, puts seasonal workers at a high risk of exploitation and abuse.

The report breaks down how the rules of the scheme lead to the stories I’ve read about — abusive employers, poor accommodation, and overbearing living rules. It recommends rebalancing the equation so that RSE workers are better protected, with employment and human rights that are consistent with others in New Zealand.

***

In Alexandra, I talk to a crew that’s having a hard time with their bosses.

Through Leina, I have a conversation with the team leader, and three of his crew. They take us through a typical day, and outline their living circumstances.

Like the other workers I meet, they’re not too fazed by the physical nature of RSE work. Yes, it’s hard, but they’re used to it. And the pay is important.

We talk about their lives at home, and what it’s like in the villages. It’s a good reminder that in the islands, everyday life comes with plenty of work. The conveniences we’re used to in New Zealand simply don’t exist a lot of the time. Families grow their own crops for food, look after animals, and there’s much to be done to keep households and communities running.

Of the four men we’re speaking with, none had steady, paid employment before joining the scheme. Their work around their villages and homes was helpful and necessary, but it didn’t bring in any money. Now, they’re able to pay school fees for their younger siblings and children. One of them talks about buying diapers for his son, and they all nod when he mentions buying medicine for family members when they’re sick.

When we talk about what isn’t going well, there’s a kind of helplessness that creeps in. The team leader describes being at the mercy of a volatile and moody employer, who doesn’t talk clearly or respectfully to workers, then loses it when things aren’t done properly.

He runs through a range of examples on the farm, and it starts to sound a lot like workplace bullying and intimidation. It seems as if there’s a vindictiveness to the employer’s behaviour, which often makes regular tasks more difficult. On top of that, there are problems with their accommodation.

The group is afraid to give me their names, and they don’t want me to give too many specifics about their complaints, in case they can be identified. The growers’ community in Central Otago is small, and it’s not hard to narrow down which crews belong where. The season has already been hard enough, they say, and for now, they’re managing.

When I ask what they’re planning to do, the team leader says they’re just hoping the employer will start to come around. And that, soon, the employer will see that things aren’t going well — and that the accommodation needs to be improved.

“I’d really like to raise it with the bosses but I was hoping they’d be able to see for themselves how unreasonable things are. The boys and I have talked about it — the bosses have their own eyes and brains. They should realise that it’s too much.”

***

Lory Thompson and Noellina Meltenoven, outside their accommodation at the Dunstan Hills orchard in Alexandra, Central Otago. (Photo: Teuila Fuatai)

On Saturday night, Leina and I head over to the Dunstan Hills orchard.

We’re part of a mini-convoy that forms after the Earnscleugh Hall meeting. It includes a few vehicles with members of different crews from around Alexandra.

Leina and I have asked Lory Thompson, the team leader at Dunstan Hills, if we can visit the accommodation. We’d like to talk to some workers in a less formal setting.

Thirty workers live at Dunstan Hills. Their accommodation is a few blocks back from the road, past the big packhouse and between different sections of the orchard.

There are two parts — the main accommodation block which has the shared area with the kitchen, living and dining space. Then a few small cabins outside. I’m told it’s one of the best RSE accommodations around.

At Dunstan Hills, the shared area is open-plan. Ranch sliders open to a wraparound porch and backyard area. There’s a pool table, couches, loungers, and a large TV in the living space. The dining area has long trestle tables that can be folded away. Opposite that is the kitchen.

The workers’ rooms, and the toilet and shower blocks, come off the corridors behind the shared area.

Leina and I camp out at one of the dining tables for about three hours. We’re able to talk to workers in-depth and one-on-one. People also drop in throughout to listen and add comments.

Lory lets us know they’ve prepared dinner. They’d like us to stay and break bread with them.

It’s been a long day, and everyone’s ready to unwind. There’s music playing and a few of the workers are playing pool. Some of the guys are preparing kava outside.

I ask Lory about the rules on alcohol and kava. I’d spotted a line in one of the worker tenancy agreements saying “all accommodation is smoke and alcohol free”. But there’s no mention of kava. The report from the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner also highlights that alcohol and kava are banned for many of the workers they spoke to.

Lory says some places have an informal understanding with bosses which overrides the ban. But he doesn’t really object to the restrictions because of the problems he’s seen with workers getting into trouble when they’re drunk.

In Vanuatu, alcohol isn’t as accessible as it is in New Zealand. When workers come here, they have to adjust to that. And that can be difficult, especially when they’re away from their families and homes for so long.

“It’s okay to have one or two beers,” says Lory, “but I’ve come out before and there’s guys being loud, and making noise and being silly. It’s not good for anyone.”

And if things go really wrong, workers won’t be allowed to come back through the RSE scheme. It’s what’s known as blacklisting. And that’s tough for the worker and their family back home.

“Not just because of missing out on the money,” says Lory. “There’s a lot of shame.”

Other team leaders share similar views. A few beers is fine as long as no one gets carried away.

Two other RSE accommodations we visit follow this slightly relaxed policy. There’s also one crew which isn’t allowed anything — no alcohol, no kava.

When I ask how workers go with kava, the conversation is all about how zen and relaxing it is.

I think the rules and attitude around alcohol reflect an uneasy balance that the scheme keeps. It’s one that has to manage the lifestyle and cultural gaps between New Zealand and the home countries of RSE workers.

From what Lory and other team leaders describe, drunken and harmful behaviour isn’t an issue for most workers back in Vanuatu because, unlike New Zealand, they can’t nip down the road to the supermarket or liquor store and buy alcohol.

Restrictions are about minimising that shift in circumstances, and the risk it poses to why workers come to New Zealand in the first place — which is to make as much money as possible to send back home.

It seems like a valid justification. At the same time, it feeds into the double standard between RSE workers and everyone else in New Zealand. How is it okay to have a scheme that essentially legalises a different set of standards for workers in New Zealand based on where they’re from?

***

Pete Bumseng at the Cromwell College Apartments, the accommodation provided by his employer Grape Vision. (Photo: Teuila Fuatai)

Our last stop for the weekend is the Cromwell College Apartments. It’s about a 30-minute drive from Alexandra and is one of the bigger RSE accommodation setups.

About 70 ni-Vanuatu workers are staying there when we visit.

Pete Bumseng meets us out the front. Pete is one of the senior leaders in Cromwell and is team leader at the Cromwell College Apartments. He and Lory are among the original RSE workers. They started in 2007, when the scheme began.

Pete mentions the harshness of the early seasons and the lack of respect given to workers. Now, senior workers like him and Lory can be supervisors on the farms where they’re working.

He talks about the shift in the community after Covid. Border closures stopped the normal movement of RSE workers. When they were finally able to return to New Zealand in 2021, he felt they were welcomed and acknowledged in a way they’d never been before.

He also talks about his wife, Regina, and their three boys, Joily, Zylian and Jabez. Jabez was a baby when Pete started the RSE scheme, and after one season away, Jabez didn’t recognise him. “He was scared of me and I struggled to hold him because he didn’t know who I was.”

Pete’s time in the scheme is peppered with these sorts of moments. He’s missed much of his boys growing up and becoming young men. Joily, his eldest, is with him in Cromwell now. Joily’s in his second season and applied for the RSE scheme because he wanted a break from his studies.

Pete says it’s good having him there. He’s enjoying the little things, like eating dinner together after work — and seeing him get better at the jobs he’s doing. But he’s also warned him about staying too long.

“If he starts a family,” Pete says, “there are moments that you just shouldn’t miss, especially when they’re young. I don’t want him and his family to repeat what we did.”

It hasn’t been easy either for Regina back in Vanuatu, having her husband live in another country for the best part of 16 years. Her family’s done well financially out of the scheme, but that lost time together is a significant sacrifice.

These difficulties are not unique to the Bumsengs. All seasonal workers and their families struggle with the distance and the time apart. For some, it simply gets too much. Relationships break down and families fracture.

It’s why Pete and Regina set up the Strengthening Seasonal Workers’ Family Programme in 2011. It’s a support network for families involved in seasonal labour work. During the season, it operates in both Vanuatu and New Zealand. Then in the off-season, couples attend workshops and gatherings in Vanuatu.

The programme is about managing the difficulties of long-distance relationships. It’s also a way of connecting families going through the same thing. There are about 200 families in the programme.

***

Apricots, Central Otago orchard. (Photo: Teuila Fuatai)

On the plane back to Auckland, I reckon I’m hauling around $200 worth of fruit.

Bags of nectarines, peaches, plums and cherries, given to me from a few of the Alexandra crews, as a thank-you for listening to what their lives are like.

Leina grabs a few as we say goodbye at Dunedin Airport. It’s been full-on and we’ve covered a lot of ground. And there’s a lot to unpack.

When I first started researching the scheme, it was clear that there are two main camps.

On one side are the employers and industry groups. They deny any widespread problems, pointing to strict rules on conditions, pay rates, and living facilities. Any issues sit with “a few bad apples” — a small number of employers who abuse the system, as happens in any industry.

On the other side are the human rights campaigners and workers’ advocates — including horticulture industry union First Union and the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner.

They highlight the controlling nature of the scheme, and the stories of worker mistreatment and abuse. They believe the setup often isn’t safe or fair in practice, and the lack of rights and agency means workers are often vulnerable to systemic exploitation.

The picture that emerges from the weekend is coloured by both these points of view.

The majority of issues link to a lack of basic information and understanding, much of which is tied to the major language barrier for most workers. Sorting through confusing pay slips, misunderstandings on the farm, access to the doctor or medicine, becomes haphazard when workers have limited English and their manager or pastoral care worker doesn’t speak any Bislama.

I’ve also heard accounts of poor accommodation and treatment, which are situations exacerbated by the differences in language and culture.

It’s clear as well that even with these problems, the workers believe in the scheme. Everyone I spoke to plans to be back next season. Almost all are open to seasonal work in Australia too. The money the work brings in for families is simply too important to ignore.

It’s a belief that makes significant improvements to the system much harder — the workers are prepared to endure a lot for the sake of the pay cheque. And, to be honest, I think that can be difficult to appreciate when you’re looking at things from a New Zealand vantage point.

The lifestyle expectations and the standard of living here are so different from the reality of many RSE workers in their home islands. Getting a spot on the scheme often means access to things we take for granted — schooling beyond primary level for children, medicine, storm-proof housing, and a vehicle.

I guess it’s where my objections to the RSE scheme start to soften, and become a lot less clear-cut. Most people would agree these are fundamentals we all want for our loved ones. It’s why participating in the scheme is such a big deal in the islands.

You get to provide for your family in a way that goes far beyond keeping the power on, the cupboards stocked, and paying the rent or mortgage. For many, it’s about building a life from the ground up.

These are also the reasons why we should be looking at the bigger picture. We need to ask how much is too much for the communities being drained of people in order to give life to the RSE scheme?

What about the impact on businesses and the workforce in the islands? And what should New Zealand be doing to ensure it’s doing right by these workers and their home countries?

The workers I met are resourceful, proud and accomplished employees, and I found much to admire about their sacrifices and decisions.

There is less to admire about a scheme that’s rooted in such an uneven playing field. And which thrives because New Zealand is wealthier than any of its RSE partnership countries, and the monetary payoffs for workers and their communities are simply too great to say no to.

 

For more on RSE, see also:

Why we’re on the RSE scheme

RSE: How can we make sure everybody wins?

‘Pick your own damn fruit’

© E-Tangata, 2023

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