‘Can’t sleep’: Seasonal workers’ uncertain future

With little prospect of returning home anytime soon, seasonal workers from Tonga are trying to survive a NZ winter as decision-makers in both countries decide what to do with them.

Paul* has been coming to New Zealand for 13 years, but this is the first time he's seen or felt winter.

He described it as a cold you can't escape. Especially at night. He tried shutting the windows, but then thought it wasn't a good idea to not let fresh air in during the night. 

So he leaves the window ajar and puts a blanket over his head. 

That doesn't work either because it leaves his feet exposed, but it has allowed him to fall asleep four nights out of seven every week. 

"I'm awake. I try to cover all my head with blanket, but I not used to cover my head with my blanket.

"Only one blanket we use when we start, but now we have to use one more or two more to double up."

The Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme allows Paul to fly from Tonga to New Zealand every November, work in the orchards, send home $400 per week to his family and then fly back home in time for Mother's day in May.  

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

Both he and his employer spoke to Newsroom on condition of anonymity. The employer is afraid if they speak out they'll never be able to get an RSE worker again - a death sentence in their industry - and Paul is worried he won't be allowed back into the country if he kicks up a fuss about his situation. 

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

"Representative agencies ... they are telling employers to hold their counsel, to not rock the boat .... don't say anything that will cause us to lose these guys because the Government can turn around and say 'Nope, we're not increasing the numbers, we're not giving you any'."

Tongan Advisory Council Chair Melino Maka said the issue for Tongan citizens was that their country had closed the border to its own citizens.

"I feel sorry about what I'm still here because I never stay for that long ... this is the first time I'm stuck over here."

They have good reason to. Tonga has only 50 hospital beds. Which means the country's government feels it can only safely quarantine that number of people every fortnight.

Maka said there could be up to 1500 Tongans on RSE visas here. It would take more than a year to bring them all back home at a rate of 50 people per fortnight.

National Party Immigration spokesman Stuart Smith said that rate of repatriation was "ridiculous" and the Government of New Zealand should be able to use its Covid-free status to negotiate quarantine in New Zealand for Tongan RSE workers who wanted to go home.

"I understand the hospital bed situation, but the reality is if they are adequately quarantined here and they have good protocols then there shouldn't be an issue in sending them back."

And unlike temporary migrants who have lived here for long periods of time and made a life here, many Tongan RSE workers like Paul actually wanted to leave.

"Today is my daughter's birthday - one years old," Paul said.

"I feel sorry about what I'm still here because I never stay for that long ... this is the first time I'm stuck over here."

There's another side to it too. Maka said Tongan citizens will be returning to a country going through an economic crisis even more severe than our own.

"Covid-19 has compounded the unemployment situation [in Tonga]. Tourism has virtually come to a halt and that's the only way they can raise money globally, and also the RSE workers who send money home.

"So really they're looking down the barrel."

Tonga also fears its workers may not be let back into New Zealand at the time of the next harvest.

That would be a further blow to Tonga's economy with remittances making up 20 percent of that country's GDP.

"I try to encourage our community; if there's an opportunity for them to stay on and work, do so.

"Because if you go back to Tonga, after about a month what little money you saved, it will be spent within six weeks or so."

RSE employers face tough decisions

However, Smith said RSE workers couldn't easily find employment either. They could change jobs, but only by transferring to another RSE employer, and the process for doing that was too slow.

A move of RSE workers from Central Otago to Marlborough had taken three weeks to get approved.

"How long does it take to do this? Certainly it shouldn't need to take as long as it is."

A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said an announcement would be made very soon around an easing of conditions for both temporary migrant workers and those in the RSE scheme that would make it easier for them to change employers and jobs. 

Newsroom understands details around these changes are likely to roll out over the next few days.

However, Smith said the Immigration Minister should have made those changes a long time ago after a law change gave him expanded powers to change visa conditions.

Meanwhile, RSE businesses like Paul's employer are facing tough decisions and feel like they've been caught in the middle.

"The Government is saying it's employers' responsibility. The Tongans are saying 'No we don't really want anybody back'," Paul's employer said.

With the harvest over and no money coming in, Paul's employer has spent $250,000 supporting its RSE workers and keeping them fed.

Government assistance to these RSE workers has mainly consisted of extra blankets to keep them warm.

However, feeding, housing and clothing these workers has taken a financial toll on the business and they will soon have to make New Zealanders redundant (who are employed all year round) just so they can ensure their RSE workforce doesn't starve.

"We have been flagging this with anybody who will listen ... to say this is what is going to happen in the next two to three months, because you're working with nature and nature goes to sleep for a couple of months."

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

With thanks to our partners