Peter Bumseng was leading a team of 44 Ni-Vanuatu combines in an orchard in New Zealand when Covid-19 started making headlines.
As they continued to pick cherries in the town of Cromwell on the South Island, the pandemic hit them directly when New Zealand closed its borders on March 19, 2020. Their specialized seven-month agricultural visas were awarded to them. were extended and they found more work, following the fruit harvest around the island until they could be repatriated on specially chartered flights at the end of last year.
Bumseng and his teammates are among thousands of Pacific Islanders who travel to Australia and New Zealand to do annual seasonal harvest work under various visa agreements to save money at send home as remittances.
Seasonal deals between Australia, New Zealand and several Pacific countries provide a lifeline for farm workers in island countries, which include six of the 10 economies most reliant on remittances, according to the World Bank.
Remittances – which come from all over the world, with the majority of Pacific Islanders living and working in the United States, New Zealand and Australia – account for nearly 40% of Tonga’s gross domestic product, 20% of that of Samoa and almost 9% of that of Vanuatu.
However, the pandemic has turned the system upside down, depriving host countries of a much needed workforce and preventing Pacific islanders from a vital source of income.
“Most of the families I know are in dire need of the money right now, especially when a lot of them have lost their jobs in the tourism sector in Vanuatu and elsewhere,” said Rochelle-Lee Bailey, researcher at the ‘Australian National University. Department of Pacific Affairs. “I also think we have to be very careful about how it will affect workers and their families if they get stuck … again.”
Bumseng has been working under New Zealand’s Recognized Seasonal Employer program since its launch in 2009. His income has enabled him to buy land, build a house for his family and support his family’s village on Ambrym Island in the Vanuatu Archipelago.
“If I had not participated in this program, I would not have been able to fulfill this dream,” he said from Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, where he now resides. “Looking back over the past 14 years, I would say the money in New Zealand is probably double, triple what I would earn in Vanuatu.”
The CSR program, which was a response to labor shortages in the agriculture and horticulture sectors, now allows up to 14,400 citizens in some Pacific countries to obtain seven-month permits to work in Nova Scotia. Zealand. The program has helped New Zealand producers increase their productivity and capacity, although they have also become dependent on imported labor.
By the end of last year, the problem was so severe that Australia started offering $ 6,000 in incentives to get local residents to relocate to do the seasonal jobs, but only 350 signed up. New Zealanders often see work as too precarious, hard-working and low-paid.
Bumseng was stranded in New Zealand when he closed his borders at the start of the pandemic – one of more than 11,000 foreign workers from Asia and the Pacific participating in New Zealand’s 2019-2020 harvest season . Several thousand more were in Australia.
Blocked by border closures
He was repatriated on a special flight in October, but 16 of his teammates remained, along with around 4,000 others who decided to continue working or were unable to return home as their own country’s borders were closed.
Many of them have been stranded again as the latest wave of coronavirus fueled by the aggressive delta variant prompted New Zealand to cancel plans to hold charter flights to bring more seasonal workers back to the country.
Bumseng was also among 150 workers from Ni-Vanuatu who were due to travel to New Zealand for the harvest season in late August. Two flights from Tonga and Samoa have also been booked for another 300 workers. The flights were all delayed.
“It was ok [for me] because I live in Port Vila. Some of the workers were from the islands, so when they found out I think it created a bit of disappointment, ”Bumseng said.
The program offered reimbursement of pre-departure fees, which often include medical checks, police clearances, new passports and visa issuance and can range from around $ 250 to $ 500, according to a 2017 report from the bank. global. Some governments, such as Kiribati, provide loans to workers so that they are able to cover the initial costs of these programs.
But the long-term financial promise is enough of an incentive that most workers shoulder the burden of the upfront costs. The money they earn pays for everything from church donations and school fees to buying a house and vehicles.
Bailey, a researcher in the Department of Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University, has witnessed both the pitfalls and benefits of extended stays and the inability to access seasonal work.
Many seasonal workers unable to travel for work find it difficult to meet financial obligations they made before the pandemic, such as paying for homes, land and vehicles, or simply continuing to provide for their own needs. family. Many workers come from countries dependent on tourism, which has only heightened their sense of responsibility.
Meanwhile, those who chose not to return home when they had the opportunity last year can still work, but the extended period away from home takes a heavy emotional and physical toll, experts said. .
“There are so many things these guys have taken on. You can tell these guys are tired… they are exhausted. Their mental health is definitely being tested, ”said Bailey, who recently focused on seasonal worker health programs.
Mental and physical toll
Charlotte Bedford, also a researcher at the Australian National University, has been monitoring issues related to the extended stay of workers in New Zealand.
For 286 workers in Kiribati, it was impossible to leave. The extended stay allowed them to earn more, but also caused problems and tensions.
Several of the women became pregnant – a costly prospect as they are not fully covered by the public health system. Typically, women used to receive assistance to return home to give birth, but now face high bills in excess of $ 6,300.
Last year, the government launched a temporary plan to cover part of the costs, and non-governmental organizations and the Kiribati community have stepped in more recently, Bedford said.
The ceilings for seasonal workers have been steadily increased. New Zealand has raised its cap to 6,400 since the start of the program, while in Australia the cap is expected to reach 37,400 by 2030.
Faced with a labor shortage, Australia announced last month that it would implement a new agricultural visa to attract foreign workers, but released few details. Critics fear this will undermine the seasonal worker program by providing a cheaper workforce with less built-in protections.
Problems on both sides
“You’d rather get a backpacker or someone with a farm visa,” Bailey said. “Employers pay for everything but, make no mistake, they are reimbursed by the worker. “
Almost all CSRs in New Zealand reported that organized seasonal work led to better employee productivity, quality and stability, according to a 2018 survey. About 45% said they had grown their business.
For participating workers in the Pacific and Timor earning Australian wages, their average earnings were more than four times what they would earn at home, according to a World Bank report.
A 2020 report suggested that imported labor was negatively impacting New Zealand’s productivity and discouraging innovation and investment in new technologies. The pandemic has provided an opportunity for employers to reconsider the way they work, according to New Zealand Institute of Economic Research principal economist Peter Wilson.
But New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s announcement in August of a one-way “travel corridor” for seasonal workers indicated otherwise.
She underscored the importance of workers for New Zealand’s economic recovery after the pandemic.
The policy exempted workers who had received at least one dose of the vaccine from government quarantine. More importantly for workers stranded in New Zealand, it meant they could return home, although the recent Covid-19 outbreak put those plans on hold.
“The recent announcement of an imminent one-way quarantine travel with Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu meant that the postponement of these flights could be more beneficial in the long term,” said Fiona Whiteridge, general manager of human services. refugees and migrants for Immigration New Zealand. in an email.
Meanwhile, Bumseng has kept in touch with his colleagues abroad since returning to Vanuatu.
“It’s very stressful for them. I had to talk to a worker, the team leader… He wanted the dates of the flights, ”Bumseng said. “I said October and he was disappointed. They were all delighted to come back here.