For orchardists looking forward to next year’s harvest, overseas RSE workers are providing a lifeline in the midst of an employment crisis.
While the RSE scheme has been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, many workers have chosen to stay on in New Zealand rather than return home.
At Cederman Brothers apple orchard in Riwaka, near Nelson, 69 workers from Samoa have stayed on to work back-to-back seasons – with some likely to be away from home for 18 months by the time they finish up.
Cederman Brothers co-owner Peter Cederman said having the workers stay on had kept their business afloat.
“I could simply say without the RSE workers, and I think every orchardist would back me up, without them we would not have a business. We could not do the scale or the export we do without them.”
Cederman said they had been in a fortunate position to retain most of their staff, although there were many orchardists who were not so lucky.
About seven had elected to go home, to meet newborn children or mourn the loss of a family member.
However, when given the choice of going home or staying in New Zealand, most of the workers had chosen to stay on, he said.
“When they finished work they were due to go home in May. We put it to them – we can send you home, but you won't probably be able to come back.
“They said they'd rather stay here, they’re better off working here than working for next to nothing on the plantations.”
Working on a contract basis, Cederman said each worker was paid according to the amount of apples they picked.
He said while the door was always open to local workers, it appeared that New Zealanders were either unwilling or unable to take the job on.
“It’s tough, physical work, and our Kiwis don’t seem to want to do that.”
The workers at Cedermans come from different villages all over Samoa. While some work on plantations back home, others include tradesmen, photographers and tourist operators who come to New Zealand to pick apples.
Jason Papali’i has been coming to back to Nelson for the past six years, and will be here until his contract finishes next September.
“We like the work, and make some more money for the family in Samoa – [when you have] money for parents, wife, kids for the school, everything is happy in Samoa,” Papali’i said.
“That’s why I would like to stay here for another six months or a year.”
Simanualii Ieremia has been in New Zealand since October, and uses the money to help provide for his two young children back home.
“All the time they’re calling me, they're all missing me. They want me to give a hug, especially my kids, I really miss them, because this is a long time to stay here.
“But we need to stay to get the money for the family.”
Many of the workers at Cedermans have been coming back for multiple years. As well as picking apples, they act as supervisors, forklift drivers and machine operators.
Cederman said while keeping them on over winter had ensured there was enough workers around for harvest, finding work for them during winter had been a tricky exercise.
He said some had to go around the country to help out on other farms, working on kiwifruit orchards, vineyards and hop farms.
“We had to hunt high and low to find work for these boys, and thank goodness there were growers out there looking for workers.”
Cederman said he owed a huge debt to the Samoan workers who chose to stay on.
“I couldn’t speak highly enough of them for what they do for our company in staying on through the lockdown – the boys are going to be here for 18 months away from family and friends and all that.
“They’re just genuinely great guys, they work hard and they enjoy their work. They make good money and they send it home, and that’s all they want to do – look after their families.”