Immigration

Hungry and scared in Hawkes Bay

A Newsroom investigation into the plight of Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers after lockdown explores the experience of some Solomon Island seasonal workers living on almost nothing who believe they have been blacklisted from returning home because they complained about their situation

RSE workers in Hawkes Bay have alleged they are the victims of intimidation tactics from their manager.

For his part Anthony Rarere - who has a provisional immigration advisers licence and is the manager of Pick Hawke's Bay - classifies the whole thing as an employment dispute between himself and his workers. 

However, a recorded audio tape of Rarere in conversation with his employees hints at something darker than a traditional employer-employee relationship.

Taped after a group of workers complained to MBIE about Rarere, it reveals him threatening to withhold an allowance, report them to Immigration NZ, and then withhold flights back to their home countries.

"They said they didn't have any employment. They didn't have any money to buy food, and they were hungry."

One worker decided to tape record the meeting after the group made a complaint to the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment's Labour Inspectorate.

The watchdog is a port of call for RSE workers to report exploitation, but MBIE initially used an investigator who had a personal relationship to Rarere to investigate their claims.

That investigator, Rick Brown, revealed the identities of the complaining workers to Rarere - allegedly against their consent.

 

'They were hungry'

A group of RSE workers from the Solomon Islands turning up at the Citizen's Advice Bureau in Napier doesn't happen very often.

Jenny Pearce was there on June 11 when it did. 

"They said they didn't have any employment. They didn't have any money to buy food, and they were hungry."

RSE workers shouldn't be both unemployed and in the country. They are only brought over to work their seasonal shift then go home.

The scheme is intended to allow workers from overseas to come to New Zealand, fill a workforce gap and earn money from our country's seasonal industries.

Inherent in that temporary employer-employee relationship are pastoral care duties. In theory, RSE employers are more responsible for the welfare of their employees than regular employers are. 

Lyn Soapi says she survives on $30 per week. Photo: Dileepa Fonseka/ZOOM

When the season ends, workers are expected to go home. The wages are low and the accommodation can be rudimentary, but the money is an important financial lifeline for these workers and forms an important foreign earnings component for countries in the Pacific. 

This year was different. Lockdown meant flights home were cancelled and RSE workers couldn't return home as usual.

With the Government's decision not to enact s64 of the Social Security Act - which allows people on temporary visas to be supported through the social welfare system  - RSE workers have largely been reliant on the goodwill of their employers. 

Newsroom earlier reported one RSE firm considered laying off its own local employees so it could support RSE workers who had fewer options than locals.

That employer said: "We have a moral obligation more than anything. Some of these people have been coming as long as the scheme has been running."

The workers who turned up to CAB appear not to have had an employer like that.

"To be honest because there were so many of them with an issue about their employment - and how they were treated - I was so concerned that I contacted the Labour Inspectorate."

Between late May and early June they had been told by Rarere and Pick Hawke's Bay's pastoral care worker that their employment had been terminated. 

One RSE worker, Walton Iaga, summed up the message they received like this: "You are not employed by this company. You just stay and wait for you to go back home."

That meant dipping into their savings from the season they had just worked until New Zealand and the Solomon Islands arranged a flight for them out of the country. 

"You got no f...ing respect. You're only here because of me."

Dismissed worker Lyn Soapi had to try and carve out a living on $30 a week. Enough for some instant noodles, rice, tuna, and bread.

RSE workers are employees not contractors, but when they described their situation to Pearce in June it sounded to her like they had been dismissed from their jobs without going through the kind of employment processes she'd have expected.

"To be honest, because there were so many of them with an issue about their employment - and how they were treated - I was so concerned that I contacted the Labour Inspectorate because I thought that was the right course of action."

Rarere finds out

Catherine Sheardown, an advocate for the RSE workers, said she spoke to Rick Brown about their complaints. Then asked that they not be identified. 

Just over a week later on June 19, Soapi and fellow RSE workers Danny and Mary Lau were summoned to a meeting with Rarere that was tape-recorded. 

"The more you muck me around, the longer I’m going to wait to put you on the list to go home."

During the meeting, Rarere said Brown had revealed their identities to him. 

"Rick named her. The Labour Inspector named her. He said Danny Lau, Mary Lau, and Lyn Soapi complained that they didn't get seventy dollars," Rarere can be heard saying on tape.

Later in the tape, Rarere addresses Danny directly: "I'm choosing not to pay you because you've been a huge pain in my ass."

"You got no f...ing respect. You're only here because of me."

Rarere then accuses Danny of not behaving the way he knows he should: "You’ve been coming out here long enough. You know how you’re supposed to behave."

"So, we’ve got a group of 38 people going home on the 30th of June. Next week. You won’t be on that flight.

"There’s going to be potentially another flight the following week. You won’t be on that flight either. Okay?

"The more you muck me around, the longer I’m going to wait to put you on the list to go home.

"If you’ve got a problem, ring the consulate, but I’m not going to help you anymore. I’m not going to prioritise you ... you’ve disrespected me too often."

Rarere argued he had no duty to make a payment to his workers and was doing so out of his own "goodwill". 

During the recorded conversation he made reference to a previous meeting where he gathered his workers in a room and then went to each and asked them how much they had in their bank accounts.

"You are welcome to leave but I will be calling immigration compliance tomorrow morning and telling them you've absconded. Look it up on Google. Find out what it means."

One reason the Laus wouldn't be getting money was because Rarere knew they had savings and the two had stayed at a motel for one night.

Danny and Mary are married, but have to live apart due to the gender-segregated nature of the dormitories they live in.

The couple alleged they were not allowed to visit each other in these dormitories. 

On the tape, Danny can be heard protesting that he and his wife were only able to stay at a motel because his friend owned it. Rarere doesn't accept this: "If you wanna go and stay somewhere else pack your bags and f..k off"

However, there's a catch. If Danny did choose to go then Rarere said he would report him to immigration:

"You are welcome to leave but I will be calling immigration compliance tomorrow morning and telling them you've absconded.

"Look it up on Google. Find out what it means."

There was no need for Danny to Google. Rarere had already clarified what "absconded" meant earlier in the conversation: "It means you’ve run away. The next step, they call the police, they find you and then they can hold you in the cells until you go home in August."

'It's an employment issue'

Rarere's recollection of the conversation when he spoke to Newsroom was that he had simply warned Danny that he would report him to Immigration New Zealand (INZ) if he absconded.

"He hadn't absconded, but if he did then I'm obligated to report it.

"So, he's gone to the media about it.

"Well we'll just let it play out then and I'll have to deal with it when it comes to me."

Rarere eventually hung up the phone in response to follow-up questions, but did say: "It's an employment issue, I won't discuss it."

Danny said during the conversation he understood the main reasons for Rarere's anger was that he and others had sought help from MBIE and had complained about their lack of an allowance.

"He told us not to seek help from other people.

"I don't know what [is] his reason for stopping us."

Immigration adviser Katy Armstrong believed that punishing an employee for contacting MBIE crossed a line.

"You cannot possibly prevent a worker from contacting MBIE. That's a breach of rights.

"If that's true, that crosses an absolute line. You can't do that."

However, it was MBIE who let Rarere know that some of his employees had complained and who those employees were. 

An advocate for the workers, Jason Sheardown (Catherine's son), said he was very concerned at the close relationship between Rarere and Brown, the labour inspector on the case who had identified the employees.

He and Catherine insisted they had sought assurances that the identities of the RSE employees would be kept secret.

Jason alleged Brown had worked with Rarere's father when both were at MBIE (Rarere's father is now retired according to Jason). He pointed to this as one possible reason why Brown might have identified them.

Stu Lumsden, national manager labour inspectorate for MBIE, addressed these allegations through a written statement.

Catherine Sheardown, right, claims she got a promise from MBIE that the workers' identities would be kept private. Photo: Dileepa Fonseka/ZOOM

He noted that Brown was initially assigned the case as the RSE labour inspector for the Hawkes Bay region, but that he was re-assigned after a copy of the tape recording was presented to MBIE.

"The case was assigned to a different labour inspector because of concerns of conflict [of interest]."

According to MBIE's retelling of events, Brown had suggested the workers meet with Rarere and the workers had agreed. 

"Inherent in agreement to the meeting was disclosure of the identities of the complainants."

However, Lumsden noted that by then, MBIE had "not been made aware of the tape recording and the more serious allegations of bullying and harassment". 

The point is an odd one for Lumsden to have made because Catherine said assurances of anonymity were sought before the recording was created and the recording itself would seem to back this up (the outing of the workers who complained was a key part of it).

MBIE's retelling appears to skip straight to a phone conversation between Catherine and Brown on June 23 to set up a sit-down meeting between the RSE workers, Brown, and Lumsden after Jason complained to MBIE that the workers' identities had been leaked.

And while Rarere attended that meeting, others who were at it said Brown brought Rarere along of his own accord and the meeting's attendees had not originally wanted him to hear the tape.

'Blacklisted'

Whether connected to the threats on tape or not, none of the workers who complained have ended up on flights back to the Solomon Islands. 

"For me like I'm really down with no money for two months."

While all will be glad to get back to their families, their departure will also likely bring any labour case to a grinding halt. 

Jason said the workers know that when they go back they will not be coming back.

"Lyn's talking now because she knows she's not coming back. That's the only reason she's giving out her name and all the boys."

All the workers involved who spoke to Newsroom were convinced they would be "blacklisted" from returning to New Zealand because their employer had found out they complained.

The ever-present threat of being blacklisted is another reason to believe Catherine sought an assurance of anonymity for those workers from the labour inspectorate.

One of the workers, Adrian Poloso, said he felt like he had been punished for asking questions about why he didn't receive a formal letter of termination. 

"Maybe we got blacklisted already so I think coming back here will be no more chance.

"For me like I'm really down with no money for two months."

He wanted to put this out there now so that others who followed wouldn't end up in the same position.

"I want to address it so that people will know how they treat us here.

"Try to do something so that people coming after me don't get into the same trap. That's my feeling."

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