A four-bedroom accommodation facility for workers flown into Hawke’s Bay to harvest fruit has been earning its owners about $3500 a week in rent, despite it appearing to breach minimum accommodation standards.
Twenty-eight Recognised Seasonal Employer workers were staying in the facility when Local Focus visited, including 12 in beds set up in the living room, with rent set at $130 a week for each.
Around 5000 RSE workers from the Pacific Islands are arriving in Hawke’s Bay in the coming months. Despite a wet summer, a strong apple season is predicted, and they will play a crucial part in its success.
But the New Zealand Human Rights Commission recently released a damning report, raising concerns about living conditions and “human rights abuses” among RSE workers.
To get a gauge of what life is like for these workers, Local Focus visited some of their accommodation.
First, we went to see 50 RSE workers from the Solomon Islands living upstairs in a two-storey building on Railway Rd, close to Hastings’ town centre. Downstairs is accommodation for workers from Vanuatu.
Nine workers live in one room on the ground floor. High windows run along the top of the wall. Five bunk beds sit on one side of the room, and a cooking area on the other. One mattress lies on the floor. Each RSE worker pays $150 weekly for a dorm bed here, and the kitchen.
Nearby on Southland Rd in Hastings, we get a glimpse at Te Kohanga Lodge, which was sold to an RSE scheme company called Team Work Hawkes Bay Ltd in 2020.
The lodge has a spacious garden in the front, but the living conditions inside the house are cramped.
There are four bedrooms - two rooms for six workers, and one room for four workers. The largest room was the living room, which has been turned into a big bedroom for 12 workers.
Despite sharing a room with 11 others, most are happy with their living conditions. They are from Vanuatu, and are spending their days thinning and picking.
At meal times, the 28 workers share one small kitchen. When we visit, there appears to be mould on the fridge and grime on the oven.
Local Focus contacted the lodge owner, Team Work’s director Jas Singh, who declined to comment, noting that his accommodation had been approved by a labour inspector.
Arguably, the RSE workers would be better off renting six individual houses. The rent for an average four-bedroom house in this area is roughly $600. But it’s not as easy as it sounds, especially given Hawke’s Bay’s housing shortages.
Most RSE workers choose to stay in employer-provided group accommodation, so they have convenient transport to work and don’t have to organise furniture and renting contracts.
During Local Focus interviews inside the houses, none of the workers raised any complaints about living conditions.
But Ask Your Team CEO Chris O’Reilly says the workers aren’t always happy and ”where every worker gets a safe, anonymous means to speak, then comes the true voice”.
O’Reilly and his team have worked with local horticulture employers to conduct an Ethical Voice survey, allowing RSE workers to answer anonymously at any time, anywhere on digital devices.
“Once you create a totally transparent system with every worker getting a voice, it will drive out the bad employers and help the good employees become even better,” he says.
“Many concerns have been identified in the recent Human Rights Commission report, like health and safety, issues around equipment quality, and training of aspects around employment and accommodation. But generally, workers are really happy.”
The Ethical Voice survey had 1600 participants last summer, and 3000 over the previous summer in Hawke’s Bay. The survey is in seven languages, and RSE workers can use their own language to speak out safely and anonymously.
In a recent survey, one RSE worker complained rooms with four to six people had poor air circulation and privacy.
Another noted that a bathroom shower took four hours to rewarm, and made its use among six workers much contested.
The survey’s results over the previous season have seen two categories - accommodation/travel and treatment at work - receive relatively low satisfaction scores of 49% and 42%.
New Zealand Immigration has set minimum accommodation standards for RSE workers, including that cooking facilities should not be used as a bedroom.
But in footage of the ground floor accommodation on Railway Rd, one room is being used as a kitchen, living room, dining room and bedroom.
The standards also specify that cooking facilities should be big enough to prepare food for the number of residents.
In the Southland Rd Lodge, there is limited room for the 28 workers to prepare food or eat meals. Some workers have to eat dinner in the bedroom.
Hawke’s Bay Fruitgrowers’ Association president Brydon Nisbet said RSE accommodation in the region was heavily regulated by the Government.
“They’re all inspected by the Immigration and Labour Department. But it’s like everything. It’s always improving,” said Nisbet.
As an increasing number of workers arrive in Hawke’s Bay, more purpose-built accommodation is being made available.
The Omahu Road RSE site is one of the largest purpose-built accommodations in the region, with 12 five-bedroom units and 16 two-bedroom units.
Rent is $140 a week, similar to what workers pay in motel accommodation, but the living conditions here meet Immigration NZ’s minimum standards.
The buildings are quite new and fully equipped, with big kitchens, lounges, and a volleyball court outside.
Site manager Marlene Welsh lives on site.
”If something goes wrong, I can be here in two minutes,” she said. “The workers are getting well looked after.”
She also has a team of cleaners.
“The cleaners go through every unit every week. They clean top to bottom and dry clean sheets every week.”
During peak season, there’s a separate building for female workers. There are also plans for expansion, including fields for playing sports.
“We’re going to have five more buildings of two-bedroom units this year. I’ve got two shipping containers coming, with bunk beds, sofas and other stuff for the new buildings,” Welsh said.
When it comes to cooking, rice cookers are the most popular kitchen appliance in all the accommodation sites.
Sometimes the workers cook chicken or fish, but rice is a staple. Keeping meals simple also helps them save more money to send home.
One worker told Local Focus that he earns over $1000 a week. But there are long work hours behind the good pay. Sometimes, they work 12 hours a day, six days a week.
Employers deduct rent and transport from their pay. Some workers know how much they are paying, and some do not.
The Ethical Voice survey also found the same concerns.
“One of the most common complaints is that people don’t understand what they’re paying for, and sometimes those deductions aren’t fair,” said Chris O’Reilly.
“Sometimes it’s just genuine mistakes from the employers, and the workers don’t know what‘s happening. Most of the time, it just needs clarification.”
Nisbet said if an RSE worker has a complaint, there’s a clear procedure to follow.
“If someone’s upset about something, they’ll go to the camp leader, pastoral care, or employers. It’ll get sorted out.”
Meanwhile, most RSE workers feel free to leave their accommodation if they wish.
Employers say they are doing all they can to protect RSE workers’ rights, in contrast to the Human Rights Commission’s report saying the exploitation of RSE workers is systemic.
O’Reilly explains the discrepancies between the two positions.
“What we’ve found are toxic pockets. So, even in the best companies, you might have a rogue supervisor, or one particular orchard or vineyard where some issues are happening around violence or sexual harassment,” he said.
There was no doubt some of the accommodation was not up to scratch, and RSE accommodation standards needed more enforcement.
But O’Reilly has high ambitions for the New Zealand RSE industry.
“Our vision is that the Ethical Voice survey gets rolled out throughout the entire sector. So New Zealand can set an example to the rest of the world.
“We can go to the world and say ‘New Zealand produces the most ethical products in the world, and we’ve got a true partnership of quality with our migrant workers that are coming over’, but we’re looking after them.”
The Government has confirmed a complete review of the RSE scheme will include a close look at human rights issues raised in the HRC report.