New Zealand horticulture has doubled its revenues on the back of seasonal workers from the Pacific, becoming a $6 billion export industry.
But there are concerns about how some of the workers are treated, with disturbing reports of threats, intimidation, low wages and poor living conditions.
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“You’ve got no f…… respect,” said Anthony Rarere, general manager of the Pick Hawke’s Bay (PHB) labour collective, which provides Pacific workers to its 50 or so orchardist members.
He was addressing three Solomon Islanders who’d been sacked and were complaining that they weren’t getting a $70 weekly food allowance that PHB was giving other workers it had dismissed.
Rarere had called the trio - married couple Danny and Mary Lau and Lyn Soapi - to a meeting at the collective’s headquarters near Hastings on June 19 and was recording on his phone, so they did too.
Danny and Mary had been sacked for staying together at a motel away from their designated accommodation - they’d been in gender-segregated lodgings since they arrived the previous October and wanted a night together at Queen’s Birthday weekend. Soapi had been fired for staying at a motel with her boyfriend.
Lyn Soapi, left, advocate Catherine Sheardown, second from left, and Mary and Danny Lau. (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)
Lyn Soapi, left, advocate Catherine Sheardown, second from left, and Mary and Danny Lau. (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)
Six other workers from the Solomons had also been let go for various alcohol-related incidents.
They couldn't return home because the borders were closed due to Covid-19, and claimed to be going hungry.
Rarere was angry that the workers had gone to a labour inspector.
It was only because of goodwill that some were getting an allowance, he said.
He had asked for everyone’s bank balances and claimed that these three had “plenty” of money - one had $8000 of savings - while the others did not.
“I don’t have to pay them, I’m choosing to pay them,” he said. “And I’m choosing not to pay you. Because you’ve been a huge pain in my arse.”
He continued his lecture, letting them know who was boss.
“You’re only here because of me. If you want to go and stay somewhere else pack your bags and f... off.
“But if you’re not there in the morning I’m going to call Immigration and tell them you’ve absconded.
“Look that up, find out what that means. 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.”
He said there were upcoming flights to return workers to the Solomons, but they wouldn’t be on them.
“The more you muck me around, the longer I’m going to wait to put you on the list to go home,” he said. “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.
“Because you’ve disrespected me too often. And you’ve disrespected my staff.”
The recording sent a jolt through the horticulture industry when it was first reported by Newsroom in July.
Here was one of the movers and shakers of the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme caught on tape admonishing workers like they were naughty schoolchildren, threatening to dob them in and delay their return home.
The scheme has been operating since 2007, when the horticulture industry began looking offshore for people to do work that Kiwis weren’t interested in.
The idea was to create a sustainable source of labour for New Zealand employers while promoting economic development in the Pacific through remittances.
It’s not a pathway to residency - workers’ visas only allow them to stay for seven months of a year.
The scheme proved hugely popular with employers, and there is now intense competition for access to workers.
The annual cap of workers started at 5000 and has now tripled to 14,400 - the scheme widening from three Pacific countries to nine.
The scheme is also popular in the Pacific, with large crowds often turning up when recruiters from New Zealand are in town.
The claims of mistreatment by the workers in Hawke’s Bay landed like a bombshell because there is huge sensitivity around such issues - the industry has signed up to international standards protecting workers. Some markets, particularly in Europe, could be lost if there's even a whiff of exploitation.
Inquiries were launched by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), which oversees the scheme through its immigration and labour arms.
Rarere, a former Immigration NZ employee and a licensed immigration advisor, was stood down by PHB while it looked into the matter. (He has since been reinstated).
The workers were flown home, their supporters claiming they were being bundled out of the country so they wouldn’t bring more bad publicity.
Others were caught up in the scandal. Hawke’s Bay Regional Councillor Jerf van Beek, one of the founders of PHB, was stood down from his job as Horticulture NZ’s national seasonal labour co-ordinator - not because of any wrongdoing but because of a conflict of interest between the roles.
There were claims by others in the industry of a “Hawke’s Bay mafia” controlling the RSE scheme - channelling workers to their orchards at the expense of other regions.
In late July, the Government announced a $50m package of measures aimed at better protecting temporary migrant workers such as those on the RSE scheme, including a free-phone number and online portals to make it easier for them to report exploitative employers.
“This helps migrant workers to better understand their rights … and provides a clear avenue for help,” Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters said at the time.
The Government had already launched a wide-ranging review of the RSE scheme as part of its Pacific reset policy in 2018. One of the aims of the ongoing review is to ensure workers get a fair share of benefits.
Gary Jones, manager of trade policy and strategy for New Zealand Apples and Pears, has been trying to push home the importance of the industry being an “exemplar” in the area of worker treatment.
“We’re the highest cost apple in the world going to the … most expensive retailers, and their consumers put trust in their retailer that their supply chain is behaving,” he says.
“That commercial implication can cost you hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. There’s real commercial imperatives around making sure you get this right.
“Exploitation is an insidious thing and it can be difficult to find - we don't say we’re squeaky clean that’s for sure, I’m the first to say that we have to do better.”
Jones says the way Rarere addressed his workers was “poor”.
“You can’t talk to anyone in any employment situation like that.”
Stuff spoke to dozens of people involved in the RSE scheme, including employers, workers, researchers and support people - all agreed it was great for employers, enabling them to expand their operations and make more money.
One RSE employee did the work of two or three Kiwis, some said.
It was also agreed the scheme benefited the Islanders - allowing them to earn money they could never dream of making back home - and their conditions had improved hugely since the early days, when they’d be housed in caravans and sheds.
But there was concern over the standard of some accommodation - workers refer to some lodgings as “camps”, “prisons” and “reservations”; wages haven't kept pace with the cost of living; the workers feel they have no rights and no voice; and a lack of freedom outside of work hours.
The Covid-19 pandemic has placed extra strain on employers. There are currently 6500 RSE workers in the country, about 2000 more than expected at this time of year due to border restrictions, and employers still have to provide pastoral care.
They are being moved around the country, depending on what work is available, but some are sitting idle while their costs mount.
Rarere’s family is heavily involved in horticulture and the RSE scheme. He is the son of George Rarere, who used to head up the RSE unit for MBIE and is now workforce development manager for NZ Apples and Pears.
Anthony Rarere says the workers’ “behaviour” caused him to lose his temper that day, but it was also one of the most challenging times he’d ever experienced due to Covid.
“It was very stressful, costs were exploding, we were essentially paying for everyone’s accommodation, thousands of dollars a week we were losing. It wasn’t a good period for the business, or me personally.
“Everyone was behaving in different ways than they would normally.”
Rarere claims that some of the workers had been staying away from their Immigration NZ-approved accommodation even during Covid lockdown.
(PHOTO: EMMA ALLEN)
(PHOTO: EMMA ALLEN)
“Technically they’d absconded, we didn't know where they were - we were getting calls from the accommodation saying ‘this woman hasn’t been here in four days’.
“When people go and stay at accommodation that hasn’t been approved ...it’s the employer who gets a kick in the backside [from Immigration NZ], not the worker.”
Soapi, now back in her home village in the Solomons, says she only stayed at the motel for one night, and it was Queen’s Birthday weekend with no work the next day.
She was sacked but nothing was put in writing, she says.
“I think it’s unfair, we are adults, we know what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Soapi says she was ostracised by other RSE workers for speaking out, but felt it was important to do so.
“Definitely we were not treated with respect - how they talk to us is like they think that we are dumb, like we are illiterate people,” she says.
“If we ask them questions, or ‘can you repeat that’ ... if we ask them anything that’s wrong with our payslip ... they get angry.”
She is considering taking a personal grievance for unjustified dismissal - an Auckland lawyer is working on the case pro bono.
MBIE says RSE workers can’t be arbitrarily fired - they have to go through the normal dismissal process as per their employment contract before they can be sent home.
Catherine Sheardown grew up in the Solomons and used to work for PHB as a recruiter and pastoral care worker until she was let go in 2017.
She took up the workers’ cause when they approached her saying they’d been fired and were existing on one meal a day.
PHB has tried to paint the dispute as being driven by a bitter ex-employee but Sheardown says she’s been trying to raise concerns about the way RSE workers are treated since she worked for the collective.
They think I’m a troublemaker because I often voice what I felt was not right.
“I tried to get them to understand that they are human, they are not animals.”
Sheardown says the workers often live in fear.
“If the complaint is about a worker not being productive or they are not performing to the level that the farmer or company expects, they are verbally abused and reprimanded as if they have committed a crime,” she says.
“They are constantly reminded each week that if they do not meet the target of whatever the employer or farmer wants, they are not returning to New Zealand for the next season.”
Sheardown says the workers aren’t allowed to enjoy themselves and are restricted from visiting friends in the community. They are not allowed to drink alcohol or go to parties. Kitchens are locked after 10pm and wi-fi is sporadic so they can’t easily contact their families.
“They are expected to go to work as early as 6am, return at 5pm or 6pm, cook their food, clean their accommodation and go to bed. During the harvest season they work seven days a week. They are worked like farm dogs.”
PHB rejects the claims. “We have long standing relationships with many of our RSE workers and they all become part of our team,” says chairman John Evans.
He says PHB still has over 200 RSE workers in its care.
We made a call very early on in the Covid-19 crisis that we would continue to employ as many RSE workers as possible over winter and we’re proud that we’ve been able to do so.
“At the same time we have ensured they have pastoral care available and that their overall wellbeing is looked after.”
Evans says the reason for some of the rules and restrictions is that employers are responsible for workers’ behaviour outside of work hours.
“A lot of our RSE employees are from small island nations, and in many cases are away for the first time from their community networks, so we have a duty of care to keep them safe.”
Kevin Bayley of Bayley Produce, who employs workers provided by PHB, including Danny Lau, says the workers are “awesome, good jokers” but misbehave after drinking alcohol.
“They get on the p... and s... happens. When they drink it’s not normal, you know. They do things ... their customs are different from our customs.”
Bayley says that allegations the workers are exploited or treated poorly are “bulls...”.
“Those workers get their arses perfumed, mate.
“You wouldn't believe it, you’d be shocked to see what they get done for them.
“They get their beds made, their sheets washed twice a week, everything cleaned up - it’s too much.”
He says there has to be restrictions on visitors to their accommodation for their own safety.
To you it seems harsh, but mate, they have the Mongrel Mob that’s putting hookers in there, you’ve got Mongrel Mob selling them P.
Rarere confirms gangs have targeted workers.
“It’s to get them hooked on a drug. They send the woman in, she’ll give them a free joint or a free hit of P or whatever. It gets them hooked and from there it’s chaos.”
Rarere says the no-alcohol rule is stipulated on council consents for the accommodation.
Some Pacific countries have also banned their workers from drinking while in New Zealand, after problems in the early years of the scheme.
There have been media reports over the years of RSE workers being charged with offences such as rape and drink driving.
Jason Sheardown, son of Catherine, says a perceived lack of freedom is one of the biggest concerns of workers he’s become friendly with.
Amongst themselves, they call their lodgings prisons because of the curfews, ‘no visitor’ signs and surveillance cameras, he says.
Within minutes of Stuff pulling up to a PHB accommodation site, managers arrived asking what we were doing.
Jason Sheardown says accommodation provided to the workers is often basic.
“You’ve got grown adults in bunk beds altogether in a room. It’s cold for them. When you ask a farmer, ‘do you think that’s fair?’ their response would be ‘but they live in shacks [at home]’.”
Stuff saw a wide range of accommodation during our investigation, ranging from Portacoms arranged around a central compound to purpose-built buildings with large kitchens and lounge areas to a converted hotel.
Two years ago, a concerned Hawke’s Bay resident sent pictures of accommodation being used by Hawke’s Bay employer Mr Apple to former Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway, claiming 12 men were housed in two Portacoms in Flaxmere with a leaky shed for their dining area and a kitchen consisting of two gas rings in another shed.
The workers were paying $135 a week, which included the joint use of a van.
The informant says he didn’t hear back from the minister.
Dr Richard Bedford, an Emeritus Professor of Waikato University who was part of a team that produced an impact study for the RSE review, says accommodation varies enormously around the country.
As workers move around different areas, he says, they will encounter different standards, but are reluctant to complain.
There is a real concern amongst workers that if they’re considered to be troublemakers, they will never be recruited back.
Bedford’s impact study found worker wellbeing and financial returns was one of the “risk factors” for the scheme.
“We hear a lot about how much workers earn, but in fact a big share of what they earn ends up staying here because of the cost of their accommodation, their airfare, insurance, tax, transport,” he says.
“It’s a bit misleading to say RSE workers can earn up to $20,000 or $25,000 and take it home - they might be able to take 10, 11 or 12 thousand home.”
Bedford says another concern is that the benefits of the scheme are not distributed evenly in the islands because the same workers and their families get recruited year after year, creating an “RSE elite”.
Kylie DellaBarca Steel
Kylie DellaBarca Steel
Kylie DellaBarca Steel, chief executive of Bay of Plenty-based charitable trust Fruit of the Pacific, which helps RSE workers with development projects in their home countries, says rises in the minimum wage since the scheme began haven’t kept ahead of the cost of living.
“Accommodation [10 years ago] was around $100 a week - now it’s $150 to $160.”
She says the scheme has been highly beneficial to New Zealand.
“There used to be a 500 per cent turnover of staff in kiwifruit packhouses. When the RSE scheme came in, suddenly they had 200 people they knew would be there day in and day out.
“Any kiwifruit grower or packhouse will say the RSE scheme has given them a stable platform to build and grow into profit.”
But a minority of employers don’t see it as a partnership, taking advantage of the power differential that exists to only provide the bare minimum, she says.
“There’s an underlying expectation that because they get to take good money home they should be thankful. When a complaint is raised … it’s like ‘well, aren't you thankful for being here?’”
Dr Angie Enoka of Massey University, who used to work for the RSE team at MBIE and has studied the way workers are portrayed in the media, is concerned that employers exercise power and control over their charges, who are very vulnerable when they first arrive.
It’s mainly those who don’t speak English well. If things don’t go right they are very scared to ruffle feathers with the employers or they’ll get sent home early.
Enoka says it’s not until they return home that some of the issues start getting reported by their home media.
Most of the complaints centre around money, she says.
“When it’s sold to them in the islands, they didn’t really explain it well - that when they use transport they need to deduct money for it, the accommodation and all the other costs. It’s like the hidden costs, that’s not communicated to them well.”
McGill, of Immigration NZ, says RSE workers have to be paid a minimum of 30 hours a week over the length of their visa, regardless of whether there is enough work.
Labour inspectors check that any deductions are necessary and verifiable.
A programme called Toso Vaka o Manū (TVOM) communicates with workers to make sure they are being heard, McGill says.
Initiatives include a programme where MBIE hosts officials from the Pacific, funding their travel to meet workers around the country and hear their concerns.
There is a Facebook page for workers and TVOM is in the final stages of developing a smartphone app so workers can engage directly with MBIE.
DellaBarca Steel says MBIE staff need to spend more time getting to know the workers.
“A labour inspector might come once. That’s not how Pacific communities operate, they work on relationships and trust.
“If they were more present and available then they might find people come and confide in them with their concerns.”
Hawke’s Bay orchardist Ann Fulford, who has been employing RSE workers from Vanuatu for 12 years, says as a smaller, family-owned business, it’s easier to do the pastoral care that’s needed.
“I just love them,” she says. “I look after them and they call me mum. I go around and ask them all the time, ‘are you OK?’
It’s that whole human touch of checking that they’re OK, making sure if they need to go to the doctor, you take them.
“They’ll talk to me a wee bit ... but we are the bosses and they’re very, very respectful and very religious too.”
She says the RSE scheme has allowed her family to expand its operation, and there are good returns for the workers, who usually take home around $20,000 of savings after six months’ work.
Fulford is concerned some bigger employers are taking advantage of their workers stuck here as a result of Covid-19.
“I was speaking to an orchard manager and he said it’s great, five times his RSEs were cancelled to go home, and he got all his thinning done.
“I said ‘how are they, they must be terrible’ - he said they still come to work with a great big smile on their face.
“I just thought, ‘those poor guys, they should be getting home to their families’.”
Stuff spoke to several workers who were stuck here without work and were doing it tough.
Angela Garae from Vanuatu says she’s having to dip into her savings to pay for her accommodation, and misses her family.
She’s been coming for 12 years, hoping to buy land to build a house back home.
She says her wages have increased a little as the minimum wage has risen, while the cost of accommodation goes up every year.
Aporosa Tuinamataya, from Fiji, is the leader of a multinational crew pruning apple trees near Hastings.
He says workers were offered the chance to go home, or stay during the Covid crisis. Some decided to stay because they were worried they wouldn’t be able to return.
“It was something we were giving back to [our employers] - they are a lovely couple, they do everything for us.”
He is worried that the worker complaints against PHB will put the whole scheme at risk.
“We isolated ourselves from that situation,” he says. “There was one group involved in that - we think about the larger picture for the RSE and we hope it won’t effect the whole thing.”
Tuinamataya says the scheme has had a big impact for Pacific communities.
“There’s a lot of development we wouldn't be able to do [otherwise]. It would take a decade. Solar power, generator, power tools - everything that makes life easier.”
He’s been coming for six years and has saved enough money to buy a boat for fishing.
“Without a boat - it’s like a cowboy without a horse.”
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Words: Tony Wall
Visuals: John Cowpland, Christel Yardley, Lawrence Smith, Kevin Stent
Data graphics: Kate Newton
Design & animation: Aaron Wood
Editor: John Hartevelt