Philime Chite is not as homesick in Hawke's Bay as he once was.

The Solomon Islander has been working seasonally for seven years in Bostock New Zealand's orchards, under the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RES) scheme.

With a picking bag strapped to his broad shoulders, he says the work has allowed him to start a taxi service in the Solomons. But he still needed to earn more before calling it quits on his shuttle migration.

"I have to go and pay for the land, for the building - my home," he says. "Build the house and then, for my kids, the school fees - all those things."

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He says his children miss him. "They have no choice. It is good for them, so I can supplement them through their education and through their future as well.

"Life is pretty hard back in Solomons. The money is not really strong enough, not like here in New Zealand."

Chite is one of 11,500 RSE workers in New Zealand this year, granted temporary visas to help cope with seasonal labour demands in orchards, gardens and vineyards.

With official labour shortages declared in Hawke's Bay, Marlborough and Tasman this year, the number of RSE workers from nine Pacific nations is likely to increase next year.

The number has already doubled from what it was when the scheme was devised 11 years ago.

But while growers have no doubt about the RSE scheme's value, unionists worry that it is undermining Kiwis' wages, and there are questions about how well it is helping the poorest Pacific Islanders.

The official labour shortages were declared despite there being about 70,000 overseas visitors in New Zealand with working holiday visas. It seems few made it to Hawke's Bay this year.

"There is a staff shortage, or people shortage, right across New Zealand," says Hawke's Bay Fruitgrowers Association President Lesley Wilson.

"Working holiday scheme people, although they have come into the country, have got jobs elsewhere before they've come to the regions."

Bostock NZ exports produce to more than 20 countries and human resource manager Vikki Garrett has no doubts about the worth of RSE workers.

Bostock NZ human resource manager Vikki Garrett. Photo / Patrick O'Sullivan
Bostock NZ human resource manager Vikki Garrett. Photo / Patrick O'Sullivan

"We wouldn't be able to harvest our fruit without the RSE component," she says.

The company pro-actively recruits local workers – the head office is in Flaxmere - and works with government departments to give jobs to unemployed New Zealanders, but this year the company has more overseas workers than locals.

"Some of our RSEs will come in November – they will come out and do thinning and weeding, we have squash and onions that need to be weeded, and then in January we start our squash harvest, and from February our next intake, which is predominantly to do the apple harvest work."

Garrett says RSE workers are paid no less than New Zealanders or backpackers on holiday work visas. "There's no limit to how much they can earn," she says.

The typical pay rate is $38 per bin of fruit. By packing three bins a day, a worker is making the minimum wage, Garrett says.

"Usually, by their third season, they are making $800-plus per week. After six or seven years' experience, they can be getting $900 to $1100 a week, net."

Watch Video 2. Pacific workers in Hawke's Bay - who benefits and who suffers? Made with funding from NZ On Air.

The RSE workers have to pay all costs, but half their airfare is paid by their employer. They are guaranteed to be paid for an average of 30 hours a week over the length of their stay of three to seven months, and what they earn can be life-changing.

"I had a brother and sister from the Solomon Islands over here, working for me for about five years, and now they don't need me because they have a cocoa plantation back in the Solomon Islands," Garrett says.

"I have a Ni-Vanuatu that doesn't come out here anymore because he has a fishing fleet.

"I love the fact that they are able to be sustaining in their own right."

Hawke's Bay Fruitgrowers Association president Lesley Wilson said bin rates have gone up significantly over the past few years and RSEs regularly took home $800 to $1000 a week.

"It takes a while to get up to that. We don't like to talk about minimum wage - we talk about beginner's wage where we train you and very quickly you can get up to a decent wage, a living wage."

Thornhill Horticultural Contracting employs 500 RSE workers in the orchards and vineyards of Marlborough and Hawke's Bay.

"We just can't get enough New Zealand workers to do these roles," says managing director Richard Bibby.

Roadside signage advertising for pickers, a not uncommon site in several regions of New Zealand. Photo / Patrick O'Sullivan
Roadside signage advertising for pickers, a not uncommon site in several regions of New Zealand. Photo / Patrick O'Sullivan

His RSE workers work beside New Zealanders who, if they are good workers, are offered full-time permanent roles, he says.

"We are a breeding ground for workers to succeed in full-time employment, but we seriously struggle to get enough workers."

Hastings orchardist Robyn Laughton says her eight RSE workers are a welcome change from unreliable local labour and backpackers.

"It has just been a life saver – it's been really wonderful," she says.

"They are really willing workers and they all turn up. They have a van so they all come together and they all go home together."

Her RSE workers are sourced from grower co-operative Pick Hawke's Bay.

The co-op's general manager Antony Rarare says ethnicity can decide where workers are placed.

"Samoan workers are very fast - they are probably our fastest crew - but with speed comes a lack of quality sometimes," he says.

"If you are going to go fast you might bruise the fruit, so some of our orchards around four or five years ago decided to try something different - Vanuatu, where they get a bit more consistency around quality. Not as fast but still working at a decent speed. It depends on the orchard.

"One of our orchards has a lot of strawberries, so what he looks for are people that are smaller. Guys or ladies that are shorter in stature and less inclined to get back injuries."

The RSE visa bonds workers to one employer, which is subject to government inspection of any part of their RSE responsibilities. Fines can be imposed for not being up to code.

Employers are responsible for RSE workers 24 hours a day, and some have sent workers home early for partying too much in their own time.

Some have been sent home because they were too slow, which RSE researcher Dr Dennis Rockell called "a vicious culling" when the scheme began.

He says RSE workers now have an excellent work reputation, which has lifted employer expectations on what a worker should be capable of. That could count against New Zealanders working alongside them, attempting to "make minimum".

Making minimum is the common practice of putting people on piece rates after a short period of training. It is a "sink or swim" situation, with people being sacked for failing to make minimum.

Worker pay in horticulture is tied to the minimum wage, but the apple industry believes higher wages are not the answer because some people work less when they get more pay.

"Rather than working the six days a week that are needed, they work four days and working holiday scheme people are especially keen on this," says NZ Apples and Pears business development manager Gary Jones.

"They'll go and spend the whole long weekend away, come back and go up another driveway and pick for a week on another property.

"I don't think paying, when there is a complete, fundamental lack of supply - just continue to throw money at it - is not a solution."

Over the years, Lesley Wilson's returning workers' take-home purchases in New Zealand have gone from needs to wants.

"We have been over to Samoa and seen the difference that we've made over there, employing them here," she says.

"They are not living in fales anymore, they are living in brick homes."

Her business sponsors a shipping container every year and what the workers put in it has changed.

After 11 years, some trends have clearly emerged in the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme - some positive, some not so much. Photo / Patrick O'Sullivan
After 11 years, some trends have clearly emerged in the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme - some positive, some not so much. Photo / Patrick O'Sullivan

"Initially, it was tables and chairs and wood to build houses and stuff like that. But now it is TVs and washing machines and kitchen gear. Stuff to make their life more pleasurable."

With 1 million new apple trees planted every year, the supply of RSE workers will become even more vital for regions such as Hawke's Bay.

Compounding the labour shortage is the fact that trees are no longer strip picked. Instead, an apple tree can be picked up to five times, to ensure optimum quality.

"The RSE scheme has enabled us to pick the fruit at the very best time and has absolutely underpinned the New Zealand position as being the best product in the market," Jones says.

"We are easily the very best apples compared with any of our competitors, and that is a lot to do with everything picked at the optimum time.

"RSE workers have absolutely underpinned the shift in our industry from being a $340 million industry to being the $720m industry it is today and a $1billion industry by 2022."

First Union general secretary Dennis Maga says RSE workers are clearly needed, but they were undermining the supply and demand mechanism that would lift wages for New Zealanders.

"Instead of employers improving the work conditions and the wage in the industry, they are now heavily relying on foreign workers," he says.

RSE workers are generally considered better off than casual and working-holiday workers who sometimes have no contracts, are sometimes paid below minimum wage and must arrange their own transport and accommodation.

There have been temporary overseas worker programmes in New Zealand for more than a century, but because previous schemes resulted in a lot of overstayers, the architects of the RSE scheme focused on workers returning home promptly.

"There was this huge emphasis on border security - on not having overstayers," says RSE researcher Rockell.

"It became the responsibility of the employers to make sure this didn't happen and they could be fined.

"The downside to that is it did actually add an element of indenture to the programme."

Watch Video 3. Horticulture is booming in Hawke's Bay. Made with funding from NZ On Air.

The scheme benefits both employers and workers and is part of New Zealand's overseas aid, says Rockell, but unlike traditional overseas aid, the RSE scheme does not target villages which really need it.

"The difficulty is that each time those partnerships are established, they can also become quite exclusive, so there is a village up the valley that is missing out.

"There is still a role for those targeted programmes that are aimed at the poorest of the poor and the RSE doesn't actually do that as well as some have claimed."

And while the RSE scheme is touted as a win-win for all parties, he says for some overseas workers there is a personal price for spending most of the year overseas.

Rockell says there are "all sorts of family breakup stories going on in the background".

Pick Hawke's Bay boss Rarare says there is a genuine affection between orchardists and their workers and an undoubted benefit to both parties, but he personally worries about the children of RSE workers.

"You are growing up with a generation of kids in the Pacific who only see their father for a few months at a time. That can't be very good."

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