Anne Hardie

When Simon Easton’s Pacific Island workers need to go to the doctor, dentist or bank, a pastoral care worker goes with them to help with any language or cultural issues.

It’s all part and parcel of the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme that has been in place for the horticulture industry since 2007 and become one of the best schemes of its kind in the world with the pastoral care described by a senior economist from the World Bank as the strength of the programme.

RSE workers may not be an option for the dairy industry, but lessons from the scheme are transferrable to any industry employing people from other cultures. Last year, 12,850 RSE workers were employed in horticulture, mostly from eligible Pacific countries, with the majority staying up to seven months in New Zealand before returning home.

Some return year after year and are old hands who play their part to lift productivity, while some growers and Pacific communities rotate a percentage of the workers so others get the chance to earn money in NZ for their families back home.

‘Pastoral care is crucial. The first year I employed local Tongan people, but now a lot of the guys speak English and I get the leaders in to help if there are language problems. About 10% have no English, but then I’ve got a guy who speaks better English than me.’

Easton, who is also Motueka Fruitgrowers’ Association chairman, began with eight RSE workers 11 years ago, increasing the number each year so that he now has 51 on his 69 hectares of planted apple orchard near Motueka in the Top of the South.

Kiwis fill the 13 permanent roles but come November the first of his Tongan workers arrive to thin the apple crop, with more arriving for the harvest in March and many staying on for the winter pruning before heading back to warmer climates.

“Without RSE we wouldn’t be and we wouldn’t be the size we are now without them,” he says.

In the past the business relied on backpackers and Kiwis, but both those groups have dwindled and where backpackers used to get a job for the season, they now stay two to three weeks to get the guaranteed minimum wage and then move on which means training new staff again.

“One backpacker this season I had to pay $350 a week on top of what he earned to get to the minimum wage. Yet all my Tongan workers smoked the minimum wage.”

In those early days 11 years ago, his RSE workers arriving for their first apple crop were nervous and so was he. It was a learning experience with language barriers, workers learning the ropes in the orchard and building up speed, plus the living needs of mostly men living in another country where even the food is different.

RSE employers have obligations and responsibilities when taking on seasonal workers including transport to and from NZ, suitable accommodation, transport to and from work sites, necessary language translation, access to medical insurance and personal banking, plus opportunities for recreation and religion.

“Pastoral care is crucial. The first year I employed local Tongan people, but now a lot of the guys speak English and I get the leaders in to help if there are language problems. About 10% have no English, but then I’ve got a guy who speaks better English than me.”

The orchard’s pastoral care officer, Graeme Walker, says it’s all about looking after the wellbeing of the workers and helping them adapt to a new environment that is quite different to the often-primitive living standards back home.

When new RSE workers arrive for their first season, he takes them to the bank with all their documentation to set up an account, while fellow RSE workers buddy them with others to show them the ropes.

If one needs a doctor, Graeme is called on to take them along and act as an interpreter if necessary. His role is also about educating the basics of food hygiene to a group who come from basic homes without a fridge to store food safely.

Food has been an issue. NZ supermarkets are stocked with food unavailable in many Pacific Island communities and then a largely male RSE group is in charge of cooking for themselves. Easton finds food in their rooms that should ideally be refrigerated and their diet consists of food that wouldn’t earn a healthy tick, such as two-minute noodles, sausages and spam. Fried food is also the norm and Easton continually encourages them to add fruit and vegetables into their diet.

It’s a physical job that requires a good diet, but that is an ongoing challenge. In the past, the workers were allowed half an hour whenever they wanted for lunch, but in order to make them sit down and have something substantial, work stops for everyone at lunch time so they can meet and eat.

Arriving from basic homes on the islands, workers had to be shown how to use a microwave – with a few casualties along the way after metal utensils were left in them – and many of the men knew nothing about cleaning, though that problem was alleviated by employing a cleaner.

A former packhouse has been revamped for accommodation and alongside the communal eating and lounge area there’s a pool table, table tennis table and some gym equipment to help occupy their time outside work hours. Most years they have had a volleyball team and RSE worker teams from various orchards are regular competitors in the region.

For the orchard’s part, it’s a huge investment in the scheme such as accommodation, sewerage and vehicles to transport workers between orchard blocks and outside work. From one vehicle 11 years ago, the orchard now has eight vans for its RSE workers and all the costs that go with running them.

Most of his Tongan workers are Mormon who regularly attend church and don’t drink alcohol and for others, Simon says he makes it very clear when they first arrive that there is no tolerance for alcohol.

Any serious transgressions mean the end of their stay on the orchard and they are sent back home, while those who have been coming back for years and earned trust are rewarded with their rate of pay.

A few surprises pop up, including an unexpected birth last year from one of the women; it was only discovered she was pregnant after the ambulance arrived and a baby girl arrived 15 minutes later. In keeping with her environment, her mother named her Jazzalina Wairepo after the apple, Jazz, and the orchard.

Easton says it’s important to understand where their workers come from and what their jobs mean to them and like many growers, he’s been to the islands a couple of times to meet the families and learn about their lives.

“It’s also really important to see where their earnings are going and you feel really good when you see what a guy has been able to do to their house.”

He doesn’t see RSE workers displacing Kiwis because there just aren’t enough Kiwis wanting the jobs and any that do want a job will get one.

“If anyone comes in off the street I throw them into a job straight away. If there’s a New Zealander looking for a job we try to get them skilled up. But it’s not often enough.”