Over the years, there’s been a lot of commentary about the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme from different people and groups. But not so much from the workers themselves.
Here, three ni-Vanuatu workers who work on farms and orchards in Central Otago — Pete Bumseng, Noellina Meltenoven, and Lory Thompson — share their experience of seasonal work with E-Tangata’s Teuila Fuatai.
All three are employed by Seasonal Solutions, a Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) and co-op of about 50 growers, orchards and vineyards in the South Island. The company is responsible for most ni-Vanuatu workers in Central Otago. (Other workers are contracted directly to farms and growers who have their own RSE licence).
‘You can’t be an RSE worker forever’
Pete Bumseng, 52, has been part of the RSE scheme for more than 16 years. He’s at Grape Vision in Cromwell, Central Otago, where he is a supervisor. Pete is married with three boys. His latest season began in November 2022, and he’s due to return home in June.
I’m one of the original RSE workers. I first came in 2006 after being picked for the Vanuatu pilot group. There were 45 of us, and 15 were from Ambrym, my home island.
My wife Regina and I have three sons. When I started, our youngest Jabez was one. He’s 17 now. I’ve done every RSE season since he was born.
The chance of seasonal work in New Zealand was a big deal for our Ambryn families and communities. There isn’t a lot of paid work at home. And while money isn’t everything, it’s important for basic resources that you need for life in the islands. Things like concrete houses that can hold up in storms, water wells for villages, and a four-wheel-drive for transport and farming in remote areas.
One of my relatives, John Salong, asked me to be part of the RSE pilot in 2006. John helped to find people in Vanuatu for the pilot.
I was a bit different from most of the other guys from Ambrym.
Regina, me and the boys lived in Port Vila — and we both had jobs. Regina’s a primary school teacher, and I was doing a lot of contract work. I was a radio DJ and I’d been part of different programmes and projects around Vanuatu, including HIV education and awareness. I’d also visited Australia and New Zealand for my radio work. Before that, I’d worked at the meat works in Vila, and I was a trade union rep too.
John said I’d be good for the pilot because I’d been to New Zealand and Australia. I knew what it was like to be away from Vanuatu. Of the 15 of us from Ambrym, he selected me and another guy with travel experience who also lived in Vila. He knew we’d help the others who’d never been away.
All of us on the pilot were told that if it went well, they’d make the programme permament. And that would mean more jobs and earning opportunities for others at home. The pilot was also supported by the Lolihor Development Council which represents different villages and communities in northern Ambryn. They looked at community projects which the money earned in New Zealand would help with.
For me, that was really important because living in Vila meant I’d sacrificed being part of village life at home. I believed being part of the pilot was a way of giving back, especially because, if we did well, more people would be able to go to New Zealand and earn money for their communities.
My first full season was 2007-2008. That was the official start of the RSE scheme.
One of the hardest things about those early years was the cold. I think the weather has changed quite a bit, because even when it was summer back then, the mornings were freezing. Dark and so, so cold.
We also had to get used to the Kiwi way of working. I remember during the pilot, we came to Cromwell and got through all the work with grapes pretty quickly. A lot faster than expected. So they sent us to Alexandra to pick apples, and after that we went back to the vineyards for harvest.
Working fast is good, and it’s important when we want to get through tasks as quickly as possible, but not when you’re expected to fill an eight-hour day. Back home, especially in the villages, we have a totally different approach to work. For example, if we have a job to do like tending to one of our relative’s crops, and we know it can be done in two hours, we’ll just slot it into our day whenever it suits us. There’s no set start or finish time.
It’s not like that here. Every season, it’s something the new workers have to get used to. Wake up at the same time, begin when the boss says, don’t hurry for no reason, and get used to working at least eight hours a day.
Contact with home was also hard at the beginning. We didn’t have our own phones and not everyone at home had access to a phone. In that first season, I used to beg the manager of the accommodation for her phone. Maybe every two weeks, I’d get to call home. And it would only be for a minute or two to Regina. Often just a quick “Hello, I’m okay” and “goodbye”. I remember being grateful I got that. A lot of the boys whose families didn’t live in Vila went for three months with no contact because there wasn’t any way to call.
But it didn’t take long to see the value of the RSE Scheme. Even after the short pilot project, the workers were able to put money towards community initiatives. I suppose, in that sense, the benefits have been easy to see. There’s better housing in the villages, guys have been able to set up businesses, and, of course, a lot of children have been able to go to school because the income from the RSE scheme pays for school fees.
It’s the downfalls and regrets that are harder to measure. Especially when you first start, or when you’re looking at all the good things that the RSE brings.
Regina always says to me: “I don’t need your money. Money isn’t everything.” And it’s true. When I got home after my first full season, Jabez didn’t recogise me. He was scared of me and I struggled to hold him because he didn’t know who I was.
That’s something we all go through as RSE workers. We have to learn how to live apart from our families, which is a completely foreign and isolating way of life for us — especially when everything we know is rooted in our families and communities.
And it goes both ways. Our families have to manage without a parent, or partner, and sometimes a son or daughter too. Over seven months, we rely on phones to understand what’s happening with each other, what’s going on at home, how our families are, and if they’re coping.
When our boys were young, one of my sisters would come from Ambrym and stay with Regina while I was away. That kind of support was common when the scheme started, but over the years, it’s started to fall away. Society’s changed back home. People are busier and more involved in their own lives, so it’s harder to get extra family help. Partners and wives are more likely to manage their homes on their own during the season.
That pressure, and the time and distance, is simply too big sometimes. A lot of the problems we have with the RSE programme, as well as the seasonal workers’ programme in Australia, comes from the time away from our partners and families. If we don’t talk about what’s going wrong, and try to fix the root of the issues, then we start to see relationship and family breakdowns.
Over here, you can see when things are going wrong. As a supervisor and team leader, I see it in a guy’s work. They’re not able to focus and don’t do things properly. Some turn to alcohol and then they’re late to work or stop coming altogether.
Regina and I have lived through the difficulties of the RSE scheme. In 2011, the year I became a supervisor, we set up a support programme back home — the Strengthening Seasonal Workers’ Family Programme. It started small, and it helped connect the women to each other while we were away. Each month, the women at home have monthly meetings, activities and workshops. They choose what they do, and topics include household budgeting or financial advice.
To keep it running, the workers contribute a bit of money, and the women also do their own fundraising. Over the years, it’s grown to different parts of Efate, and we also have groups in other islands.
For the men, it helps to know that their partners and wives have people around them who understand what they’re going through. It also means when couples do have problems, Regina and I, and other members of the group, can help.
Sometimes that’s as simple as telling someone to turn their phone on when their partner is trying to get through to them. Other times it’s about talking things through with them when something’s gone wrong — and for the men especially, encouraging them to take the time to listen and talk to their partners at home.
There are about 200 families involved now, but that number changes, especially as people come in and out of the seasonal worker schemes.
I think some of the problems we get are also because families don’t know what it’s like in New Zealand.
A while back, I was thinking about giving one of the seasons a miss. I wanted to spend a Christmas with my family. When I talked to my boss James Dicey about it, he said he’d pay for them to come over. That was in 2014. Regina and the boys stayed with us in the accommodation. They saw the hours we worked, what we did each day, where we cooked and slept. Since then, they’ve come for Christmas four times, and we’ve talked about some of the other wives and partners coming.
I love having them here, and it was good for Regina to see the setup. There’s lots of rumours on social media about workers going out to nightclubs and having affairs. When Regina came, she saw what it was like and took that picture back to the other partners and wives. She saw that the accommodation was safe and good, and that we work long days — for me it’s 11 hours a lot of the time. So ringing late at night isn’t always the best idea.
Those are the kinds of things we have to deal with as RSE workers and families.
I’ve been asked about living in New Zealand with Regina and the boys. It’s not something I’ve seriously considered. For me, home is home.
It’s hard to believe that I’ve done 16 seasons. I’ve missed a lot of my boys growing up. They’ve become young men while I’ve been in New Zealand. When I’m home, I try so hard to make up for that time. We go back to Ambrym and stay with my family. We go hunting and fishing, and do things that we wouldn’t do in Vila. In the off-season, my time is for them.
Our eldest boy, Joily, is here now. It’s his second season. When he turned 21, he wanted to take a break from his studies and work. I feel like l’m getting a bit of the time I missed back then. We cook and eat together in the evenings. I’ve been able to teach him about work, and watch him get better. I’m his dad, supervisor and team leader. It’s been good to see him develop, and be there to help him along the way. I’ve also said to Joily not to follow in my footsteps.
There are moments that you just shouldn’t miss when you start a family, especially when the children are young. I don’t want him and his family to repeat what we did.
My boss and I had also talked about how to make the RSE scheme better for workers and families. We’re running a rotation trial with 16 workers at the moment. For two seasons, eight of the workers come to New Zealand while the other eight stay home. Then they swap. We’re in the fourth season now and it’s going pretty well. Everyone has stayed in it apart from two or three of the workers. They took jobs with other companies instead of staying home for their allocated seasons because they needed the money.
That extra time between seasons is important for families, but also for setting things up at home. A lot of us start businesses, but they don’t always last because, after the off-season, we’re back in New Zealand for seven months.
I had a tourist business in Vila, which did really well at the start, but a lot of the work fell to Regina during the season. She had her own job and was running around after the kids so it wasn’t practical. I ended up hiring vans and drivers from other companies when it got too much. Then, Covid came and the tourists stopped. Since then, we’ve left it. I also had a cattle business, but it was too hard to maintain while I was away.
One of the ideas behind the rotation is giving workers time to get their projects and businesses at home running solidly before coming back to New Zealand.
I think it’s also important for us to think about what’s next. You can’t be an RSE worker forever.
There’s only a few of us still on the scheme from the pilot group — and I know six others whose boys are here now. Like Joily, they’re the next generation.
Covid also made people think twice about the scheme. All of a sudden, a lot of the workers were stuck because of border restrictions. That meant the seasonal income just stopped.
I think I probably have a few seasons left, then it would be nice to spend some time at home.
‘The money we’ve earned through RSE has been huge’
Noellina Meltenoven, 41, is a mother of four who joined her husband on the RSE scheme in 2014. She was a bank supervisor in Vanuatu before that, and now she’s a supervisor in the packhouse at Dunstan Hills orchard in Alexandra, Central Otago.
Having missed two seasons because of Covid, she’s now on her seventh season, which started in November 2022 and ends in April.
My name is Marie Noellina Meltenoven, but most people call me Noellina. My families are from the islands of Malekula and Santo. Santo is where I grew up, but since high school, I’ve lived in Vila.
I met my husband, Lory Thompson, through soccer, when I was about 18. We were both playing for the Vanuatu national teams.
I remember we had this coach from South America. He said my friend and I should go to Auckland and play for a club there. I was really keen, but when I talked to my mum about it, she said it would be better for me to stay in Vanuatu and continue with my studies.
I’m the eldest of my five siblings, and the eldest daughter. Our family invested a lot in my education. A big part of that was so I could get a good job, and help with my younger siblings.
Back home, if you do well at primary school in the outer islands and villages, your family will try and send you to one of the better high schools in Vila. Then, if you do well, you can go on to tertiary studies. That’s how I ended up living in Vila.
At high school, I stayed with my aunt’s family. I was a pretty good student, and I worked hard. We didn’t have a lot of money. Like most families in the villages, we relied on the land and sea for food. My dad was also a really good carver, so to pay for my school fees, my parents sold the handicrafts he made.
After high school, I got into the Institut National de Technologie de Vanuatu and studied business. It’s one of the top technical institutions in Vanuatu. People go there to study professions and trades. For the first two years, my parents paid my fees. I won a scholarship from the French Embassy for my final two years.
It wasn’t easy finding a job after the Institut. I ended up working as a cashier at one of the big supermarkets for a year before I got a job at the National Bank of Vanuatu. It’s the biggest bank in Vanuatu and I worked there for 10 years. I was a supervisor with a team of five when I left. It was always busy, and we worked long hours. But I loved it, especially dealing with customers.
I left the bank to join the RSE scheme in 2014.
Lory has been on the scheme since 2007, and he’d asked me a few times about coming to New Zealand. I wasn’t sure at first. I had a good job with the bank. And we had the kids to think about.
That’s the hardest thing about the scheme — leaving everyone back home and being here for so long. I remember when Lory started on the scheme, I’d just had our eldest Estherlyn. Lory had one day with us before he flew out. I felt so lucky he was there for her birth.
I also think we’ve been fortunate that, over the years, both our families have been there to help us. My brother Theophile stayed with me when Lory first started as an RSE worker. He was studying to be a nurse and didn’t have his own family. When I had our second son Collin (who’s 14 now), Theophile was working and Lory was in New Zealand. My cousin’s sister was with me at the hospital.
Collin came at 3am, and I called Lory at 6am. There were no smartphones back then, and we didn’t have easy access to the internet. I used to take photos of Collin and send them by mail to Lory. He wanted one every week.
That support has been there with all our kids. After Estherlyn and Collin, we had Jayden who’s now 11, and then our youngest, Patrick, was born in August 2021. Lory also had a daughter, Sophian, before we were together, and I helped to raise her. She’s 22 now, and she helps to look after the kids while we’re in New Zealand.
Lory and I worry about things when we’re not there, but knowing the kids are with family makes being apart a lot easier. At our house in Vila now, there’s my two sisters Madonna and Marie-Ange, four of their kids, Mum, and then our four kids and Sophian.
The money Lory and I have earned through the RSE scheme has been huge.
When Lory first started, I was scared we’d get accused of money laundering because he was sending so much money home. Every month, he’d send 50,000 to 60,000 vatu (about NZD$650 to $800). It was double or triple what I earned at the bank — and that job was a good income at home. Then, when I talked to Lory, I’d worry he wasn’t keeping enough money for stuff like food because it was all coming to us.
We’ve also been able to work towards different things because of the RSE money. First, we bought a small house in Vila. Two bedrooms — one for Lory and me, one for the kids, and then the lounge would be where anyone else that was staying would sleep.
After my second season on the scheme, we were able to buy a piece of land so we could build a bigger house. It has a big outdoor area, three bedrooms, a bathroom, a nice living area, and fits all the kids and our family members who stay with us comfortably. We moved in last year. We didn’t need to borrow money for construction, and we’ve been able to pay the mortgage off — that would’ve taken years if we were just working at home.
And, of course, there’s the kids’ things like school fees, medicine, going to the hospital, clothes, bus fares, and now phones.
We also help with our families in Vila and my home islands. Things like weddings, funerals, and even building materials for some of our cousins’ homes. The money goes so quickly, but it’s important to both of us that we look after all of our family. I think that’s just part of our culture.
I’m now a supervisor in the packhouse at Dunstan Hills. When I first came, like all the workers, I did whatever job I was put on. I remember being scared about how hard I’d find it. I was coming from an office job and I knew the work was physically demanding. When I started, I had a sore back from bending over and lifting things up. I was doing tree training — that’s where you set up the trees so they grow properly. We use stakes and pieces of string to direct how they’ll grow.
In my second season, my manager asked me to become a supervisor in the packhouse. I didn’t want to because you had to do a course on quality control for certification, and I was nervous about my English. In Vanuatu, I went to a French school. But my boss was sure I could do it.
Since then, I’ve trained other workers to be certified in quality control — including four women from New Zealand, as well as my sister Madonna. With seasonal work, people come and go. The other Kiwi women I trained eventually moved on and Madonna was only here for two seasons.
I think the orchard we’re at is one of the best. Everyone wants to come here. The accommodation is new and there’s lots of space. The owner of the orchard does a lot of things for us. Every few weeks, she’ll drop off boxes of meat, buys things like pots, and at Christmas we get vouchers for the supermarket.
Lory and I have our own room and we pay $200 a week for rent. Other deductions from our pay every fortnight include $35 for medical insurance and then $250 for the loan we get as part of the RSE scheme. The loan covers our contribution towards airfares (the employer pays half), and the food and pocket money we get on arrival. That’s there so we have a bit of food and money before our first pay cheque.
The loan deduction continues until it’s paid off, which usually takes about three and a half months. And our food bill is about $250 each fortnight. Some of the boys, especially the younger ones, try to keep food to $80 a fortnight, but you can imagine what that buys them.
At the end of the season, Lory and I will probably take home about $20,000 each. We also send money back regularly, depending on what’s happening. For example, we’ll always send a big amount before Christmas for presents and anything else our family needs. The beginning of the school year is another big transfer because they’ll need to buy things like uniforms and books. Usually, we’ll send between $1,000 to $2,500 home about once a month for things like food and the bills.
I want to keep coming back. The scheme has made such a big difference in our lives. Even my old boss from the bank talks about how I’m a good example of what you can achieve though seasonal work. I’ve been back to work at the bank a few times since joining the RSE — in between seasons and during Covid. But now, I just enjoy my break at home when we’re not in New Zealand.
‘I was desperate for work’
Lory Thompson, 45, has been on the RSE scheme since the pilot in 2006. His wife Noellina is also on the scheme, and they have five children between them.
Like Noellina, he played soccer for Vanuatu’s national team. He’s now a supervisor at the Dunstan Hills orchard in Alexandra. His current season started in October 2022 and he’ll return home in May.
I’ve been part of the scheme since the beginning. It hasn’t always been good.
When we came on the pilot, the conditions were really rough. At the first place we stayed, we didn’t even have blankets for sleeping. And it was so cold coming from Vanuatu.
Then, in the first full season in 2007, I was in a house with nine others. On some days, when we finished late and the manager had gone, we’d walk 15 kilometres to get to the accommodation. That was so hard and long.
I started at Dunstan Hills in my second season — it’s where I’ve come every season since. The boys tell me it’s one of the best orchards. I’m a team leader and supervisor now, so I communicate with the farm managers, help organise the workers, and make sure everything is running smoothly at the accommodation.
When I started on the RSE, I was desperate for work. I was playing for the Vanuatu soccer team and my name and picture would be in the news and paper. But I had no money because we weren’t really paid. I’d wake up in the morning and have to find bread because there was no food around.
One of the people who I knew through soccer was connected to the scheme and asked me if I wanted to come.
Everyone who was on the RSE pilot came again. We were also given two RSE forms when we got home so we could find two more workers for the next intake.
Now, I recruit 30 people for the season for Dunstan Hills. Everyone that comes is a soccer player — it’s how I ended up here too. In the first RSE season, I went for a kickaround at the local soccer club in Alexandra. It was random, just a one-off, but they ended up tracking me down so I could play regularly.
At the time, I was at an orchard in Roxburgh. It was hard to get to games because the other players and the coach were in Alexandra. Here at Dunstan Hills, the orchard manager, Ian Nicholls, is part of the Alexandra soccer club. He made sure I came to Dunstan Hills after that first season so I could play for the club.
When I recruit, I like to get guys from different places in Vanuatu. There’s lots of tribalism and islandism back home, and that doesn’t go away when we come to New Zealand. In my experience, it works well when either everyone is from different places, or we’re all from the same place — the likelihood of little groups and rivalries forming in the team is a lot less.
I think your experience in New Zealand depends on the bosses and where you work.
In the early seasons, through to about 2009, I noticed that Kiwis and backpackers would get paid a higher rate than ni-Vanuatu workers. For example, for tree pruning or trimming, they’d pay the Kiwis and foreigners $5 per tree, whereas we’d get $2 for a tree.
We’re a lot faster, so we’d do more trees at a lower rate. I told the manager it wasn’t fair. If you’re paying that amount to Kiwis and backpackers, then you should pay the same to us. After that, we were paid the same rate.
Another time, we were picking cherries. You’re paid per bucket, and once you fill a bucket, you empty it into a crate and then scan your personal barcode for the pay system tally. One time, I noticed that our barcodes weren’t being scanned because of a glitch in the system. I raised it with the manager at the time and he insisted that we keep putting our buckets into the crate. I refused because it meant we wouldn’t be paid for our work. He told me off, but we stood our ground and he eventually apologised.
In my time on the scheme, I’ve learned how valuable we are as workers. When you get a bad supervisor or manager on a farm, it’s about communicating to the boss that it’s a choice between 30 ni-Vanuatu workers and one bad manager.
But that’s not always easy for the ni-Vanuatu workers. You have to understand the New Zealand culture and rules, and English can be difficult. Sometimes, it’s not always clear we’re getting treated badly or unfairly, and that makes it hard to stand up to.
Both Noellina and I tell the kids that our work in the RSE is so they can have a better future. They won’t have to struggle like we did. My parents were so poor and we didn’t have any money growing up. We’ve been able to give something totally different to our kids. They all have phones now, which means we can stay in touch easily. We use the imo app, and when the kids see we’re online, they’ll just call.
Noellina and I have talked about living permanently in New Zealand, and I’ve talked to my boss about it too. He’s asked if we’re keen. If it had been an option in the early years, I think we would’ve done it, so the kids could come to school here. But they’re a bit older now, and I don’t think it’d be the same. I’m not sure they’d want to move at this stage.
It would be good to have an option around residency for families, or even an option to come here for three years. The setup of the RSE scheme, and the time we spend apart, is so hard, especially when kids are young.
There are things I’ve missed that you only really get once. I remember when I left after our daughter Estherlyn was born. She didn’t recognise me when I got back. And when people get sick, and pass away, like my great-uncle last year, I really miss home.
Like Noellina, I get a higher rate of pay for being a supervisor. At Seasonal Solutions, my experience as a long-term RSE worker is factored in. I know not all companies are like that.
I’d be interested in trying the seasonal work in Australia and being a regular worker. As a supervisor and team leader, a lot of my job is about managing the team and looking after the boys. I wouldn’t mind leaving that for a bit. We’ve also heard that the take-home pay in Australia is better because their dollar is stronger.
I’m not fazed about coming back on the RSE scheme. I’d be happy to do one or two more seasons and then stay home and spend time with the kids. When I go home, it’s relaxing and it’s about having family time.
As told to Teuila Fuatai, and made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
For more on RSE, see also:
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