Immigration

‘We are black ... we are human beings’

RSE workers at the heart of a Newsroom investigation haven't extracted a personal apology or compensation from their employer and were denied an opportunity to eyeball their former boss in court. They hope Kiwis will still fight for them on their behalf.

The sense of defeat was palpable amongst a set of RSE workers who were forced to board a repatriation flight before any of their claims of mistreatment and unfair dismissal could be resolved. 

One of the workers, Lyn Soapi, said the group were sad to be leaving without anything to show for their efforts, but happy to be going home. 

"We've been told too many times that we have been from a corrupted country, but maybe we are happy to be from Solomon Islands ... because we stand for what's right and we fight for what's right. That's who we are.

"From what we've come to understand these past months, weeks and days that we've been here, it's like you have money then you have more power. If you don't have money then you have nothing. That's how we feel here.

"Just because we are black doesn't mean that we are different from you. We are all human beings."

The group tape recorded a goodbye message to New Zealand as they boarded a flight to the Solomon Islands from Auckland Airport early Tuesday morning. 

Their plight was illustrated in another tape recording released as part of a Newsroom investigation last week. On the tape, the boss of Pick Hawke's Bay (PHB) - Anthony Rarere - can be heard threatening to withhold flights home from his employees, report them to Immigration New Zealand, and hold back cash payments. The workers were left living on as little as $30 per week. 

"If there are people out there who wants to help with what's going on we want you guys to keep fighting for us when we leave," Soapi said.

"For all of us we could be so happy if we could hear apology from PHB for our unfair dismissal ... we would be so happy if we could just hear him say that to us, but we received nothing. He never even apologised to us for the way he talked to us, the way he treated us."

PHB has apologised via press release courtesy of two-term Hastings District Councillor Damon Harvey who is the director of a public relations agency that represents the organisation.

All of the workers involved have been flown out against their wishes. They wanted to return home, but desired justice most of all and hoped they would get to be in court for their boss's court appearance on Monday. They then wanted to be able to stay long enough to secure some reparations and an apology.

MBIE shipped them off to Auckland and they were scheduled on the first flight back to the Solomon Islands even though there were two flights later in the week that would have allowed them to attend Monday's court session.

The Solomon Islands community provided the workers with food at the airport. Photo: Supplied

'That message should have been brought to my attention. It wasn't'

It all started when the workers tried to complain anonymously about their unfair dismissal and treatment at PHB to MBIE. They were outed by an MBIE official, Rick Brown, who had worked with PHB general manager Anthony Rarere's father George. That prompted the tape-recorded confrontation between Rarere and his workers.

Brown would eventually be taken off the case due to concerns of a conflict of interest (MBIE later said it was satisfied there was no such conflict and that it had permission to reveal the workers' identities).

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway was informed of their plight almost two weeks before a Newsroom investigation into their situation was published. They sent him an email with complaints about how they'd been treated that contained allegations against MBIE. Those allegations included an audio recording of their meeting with Rarere that was later attached to a story Newsroom published about the case.

Lees-Galloway admitted his office should have dealt with the audio recording and the complaint better. Especially as it concerned allegations around MBIE's handling of their situation. 

"That message should have been brought to my attention. It wasn't. That does not meet my expectations and I've made that clear."

On Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said cases against PHB and its management would continue after those workers had left and assured them they would be able to re-enter the country next season. 

"It should never be the case that anyone who acts as a whistleblower should feel like they therefore have their ability to find work in the longer term affected by that, and that's the case for any workplace and that holds for RSE workers.

"What I can assure anyone potentially involved in a case is regardless of whether they are present or not we have a track record of pursuing cases where there is exploitation of workers regardless of whether or not they are able to testify in court."

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