Peter Bumseng was leading a 44-strong team of Ni-Vanuatu harvesters on an orchard in New Zealand when Covid-19 started making headlines.
As they kept picking cherries in the South Island town of Cromwell, the pandemic directly impacted them when New Zealand closed its borders on March 19, 2020. Their seven-month specialized agricultural visas were extended and they found more work, following fruit harvests around the island until they could be repatriated on specially chartered flights late 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 to send home in the form of remittances.
Seasonal agreements between Australia, New Zealand, and several nations in the Pacific provide a lifeline for farm workers from island nations, which include six of the 10 most remittance-reliant economies, according to the World Bank.
Remittances — which come from around the world, with the majority of Pacific Islanders living and working in the United States, New Zealand and Australia — account for almost 40% of Tonga’s gross domestic product, 20% of Samoa’s and almost 9% of Vanuatu’s.
However, the pandemic has upended the system by depriving the host countries of much-needed labor and preventing the Pacific Islanders from a key source of income.
“Most of the families that I know, they really need the money right now, especially when a lot of them have lost their jobs from the tourism sector in Vanuatu and elsewhere,” said Rochelle-Lee Bailey, a research fellow at Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs. “I also think we need to be really careful about how this is going to affect workers and their families if they do get stuck … again.”
Bumseng has worked under New Zealand’s Recognized Seasonal Employer scheme since it started in 2009. His earnings enabled him to buy a plot of land, build a house for his family and support his family’s village on the island of Ambrym in the Vanuatu archipelago.
“If I didn’t go on this scheme, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve this dream,” he said from the Vanuatu capital Port Vila, where he now resides. “Looking back over the last 14 years, I would say that the money in New Zealand is probably double, triple, what I would earn in Vanuatu.”
The RSE program, which was a reaction to labor shortages in the agricultural and horticultural sectors, now allows up to 14,400 citizens of certain Pacific nations to obtain seven-month permits to work in New Zealand. The scheme has helped New Zealand growers boost their productivity and capacity, although they also have become reliant on the imported labor.
At the end of last year, the problem was so acute that Australia began offering $6,000 incentives to attract local residents to relocate to perform the seasonal jobs, but just 350 signed up. New Zealanders often consider the work too insecure, laborious and low-paying.
Bumseng was stuck in New Zealand when it closed its borders at the start of the pandemic — one of just over 11,000 foreign workers from Asia and the Pacific taking part in New Zealand’s 2019-2020 harvest season. Many thousands more were in Australia.
He was repatriated on a special flight in October, but 16 of his teammates remained, along with about 4,000 others who decided to continue to work or could not go home because their own countries’ borders had closed.
Many of those have again been stranded as the latest coronavirus surge fueled by the aggressive delta variant prompted New Zealand to cancel plans to organize charter flights to bring more seasonal workers back into the country.
Bumseng was also among 150 Ni-Vanuatu workers due to fly to New Zealand for the harvest season in late August. Two flights from Tonga and Samoa also were 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 came from the islands, so when they found out, I think it created a little bit of disappointment,” said Bumseng.
The program offered reimbursement for pre-departure costs, which often include medical checks, police clearances, new passports and visa issuances and can range from around $250 to $500, according to a 2017 World Bank report. Some governments, such as Kiribati, provide loans to workers so they are able to cover the upfront costs of such schemes.
But the long-term financial promise is incentive enough for most workers to weather the initial cost burden. The money they earn pays for everything from church donations and school fees to buying home and vehicles.
Bailey, the research fellow at Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs, has witnessed both the pitfalls and benefits of the prolonged stays and inability to access seasonal work.
Many seasonal workers unable to travel for work are struggling to meet financial obligations they had undertaken before the pandemic, such as paying off houses, land and vehicles, or to simply continue supporting family. Many workers hail from tourism-dependent nations, which has only amplified their feeling of responsibility.
Meanwhile, those who opted not to return home when they had the chance last year may still be working, but the extended period away from home is taking a heavy emotional and physical toll, experts said.
“There’s so much these guys have taken on. You can tell these guys are tired … they’re exhausted. Their mental health is definitely being tested,” said Bailey, whose recent focus has been on seasonal workers’ health programs.
Charlotte Bedford, also a researcher with Australian National University, has tracked the issues arising due to the extended stay for workers in New Zealand.
For 286 Kiribati workers, it has been impossible to leave. The extended stay has allowed them to earn more but also has led to issues and tensions.
Several of the women became pregnant — an expensive prospect since they’re not fully covered by the public health system. Typically, women would get assistance to return home to give birth, but now they have been faced with hefty bills topping $6,300.
Last year, the government launched a temporary hardship plan to foot some of the cost, and nongovernmental organizations and the Kiribati community have stepped in more recently, said Bedford.
The caps for seasonal workers have been steadily increased. New Zealand has raised its cap by 6,400 since the program began, while in Australia the cap is anticipated to reach 37,400 by 2030.
Facing a shortfall in labor, Australia said last month it would implement a new agriculture visa to attract overseas workers but has released few details. Critics have raised concern it may undermine the seasonal worker program by offering cheaper labor with fewer built-in protections.
“You’d rather get a backpacker or someone on an ag visa,” said Bailey. “Employers pay for everything but, don’t get me wrong, they get reimbursed by the worker.”
Nearly all RSEs in New Zealand indicated that organized seasonal labor had led to better productivity, quality and employee stability, according to a 2018 survey. About 45% reported that they had expanded their businesses.
For participating Pacific and Timorese workers 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 had a negative effect on New Zealand’s productivity and discouraged innovation and investment in new technology. The pandemic was a chance for employers to reconsider how they worked, according to the 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 emphasized the workers’ importance for New Zealand’s economic recovery from the pandemic.
The policy exempted workers who had at least one vaccine dose from government quarantine. More importantly for the workers stuck in New Zealand, it meant they could go home, though the recent Covid-19 outbreak put those plans on hold.
“The recent announcement of impending one-way quarantine free travel (QFT) with Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu meant deferring these flights could be more beneficial in the long run,” Fiona Whiteridge, refugee and migrant services general manager for Immigration New Zealand, said in an email.
Meanwhile, Bumseng has stayed in touch with his overseas coworkers since getting back to Vanuatu.
“It’s very stressing to them. I had to chat with one worker, the team leader … He wanted the dates for the flights,” said Bumseng. “I said October and he was disappointed. They were all excited to get back here.”
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