In the depths of a Hawke's Bay winter, a small group of Recognised Seasonal Employer workers are again shouldering a large burden. Reporter Shea Jefferson discovers just how important the Government's 'fast lane' could be.
Aporosa Bulinitarawereierenavula of Fiji and David Toara of Vanuatu don't shy away from hard work.
But as they worked through closed borders and Covid uncertainty that this year created a massive seasonal worker shortage throughout NZ, they say they found their "forgotten talent".
The love of the land, of agriculture, of caring for their environment - a return to their roots.
Bulinitarawereierenavula and Toara work for RJ Flowers, a family owned and operated business that grows kiwifruit, apples and pears on the Heretaunga Plains.
RJ Flowers participates in the RSE scheme to bolster what it says is a deficit of local labour in Hawke's Bay, NZ's largest "pick fruit region".
The pair can both attest to the at-times challenging nature of their line of work, which sees them working six-day weeks during busy times of the season.
When Hawke's Bay Today met with the two orchardists at 3pm, they had just been pruning apple trees from 8am that morning, and after the conversation the pair were again headed back to the fruit-barren trees.
"We've got lots to do, we have to finish our winter jobs," Bulinitarawereierenavula said.
With staff numbers around half of what they usually are at this time of year, owner and operator of RJ Flowers, John Evans, said there is a lot of pressure on these men to get their jobs done in sync with seasonal demands.
This week the Government announced that before September, RSE workers from Tonga, Vanuatu and Samoa will be able to travel to Aotearoa without the requisite two weeks of managed isolation upon arrival.
This will open a one-way, express lane for 150 RSE workers every 16 days, with numbers set to increase according to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
The express lane aims to remove one of the constraints currently restricting the number of RSE workers in the country.
RSE workers returning home will need to abide by their home country's policies regarding managed isolation. Vanuatu, Samoa and Tonga currently mandate a two-week quarantine period.
Richard Pentreath, president of Hawke's Bay Fruitrowers Association, said he commended the ministers for their decision to ease pressures on getting RSE workers to Aotearoa.
"It's been a long wait but it's certainly the type of outcome we were hoping for. It's really pleasing that this is finally going to happen. The high anxiety and stress levels of growers will be subdued by this positive news."
Pentreath said there was uncertainty around the number of RSE workers that will be utilising the express lane, saying "there's still the question of numbers, we have heard we may be receiving around 1400 RSE workers nationally, but we still need more."
"This is a huge step in the right direction; however, growers are still in a very difficult position."
Evans describes it "a real positive step", easing pressures on those like Bulinitarawereierenavula and Toara who are carrying the baton of care for the environment and growing.
Despite its challenges and physical demands, Bulinitarawereierenavula and Toara say they find their field of work rewarding, as it involves a return to their roots in farming practices.
"With the recent Covid-19 inception, everybody has gone back to agriculture, a forgotten talent of my people" Bulinitarawereierenavula said.
"Back home we do lots of planting - of cassava, different sorts of yams, bananas - which wasn't such a focus before because of tourism."
Since his arrival in 2015, Bulinitarawereierenavula has been given the responsibility of team leader and learned skills such as spraying, tractor driving and communication, alongside finessing fruit-picking techniques.
Through his employment with RJ Flowers, he has also been able to attain personal financial goals in a shorter time span.
"In 2017 I bought a boat and a motor for my family, and I have been able to upgrade my homes, both here and in Fiji. I have been able to educate my daughter with the money and make my family's life easier."
For both of these men, RSE work is a selfless plight. It is about sustaining their families overseas and improving their quality of life, which comes at the cost of their own hard labour.
Evans said he feels very fortunate for the assistance of the RSE workforce.
"David and Aporosa are good examples, they have a strong work ethic, they are supporting their families and making sacrifices."
Bulinitarawereierenavula says he finds it difficult missing out on precious moments with his four-year-old son and six-year-old daughter.
"I am missing my family, but I am settled here too. I am still trying to find the answer to what the future will look like for me."
The recent Government announcement provides more clarity as to what this future might look like for Bulinitarawereierenavula, if Fiji's current pandemic situation is to improve.
"The announcement gives us more certainty and encourages us to share the love, it's an opportunity for others like us to come over and experience the same thing, to support their own families," he said.
Evans says he knows there's a significant number of RSE workers, eagerly awaiting their return to Aotearoa.
"We know people overseas in Vanuatu who are busting to get back here, they have families that are reliant on the income stream we can provide."
In an ideal world, Toara sees himself eventually moving home to Vanuatu and returning to Aotearoa on a seasonal basis for work and holidays, as he feels "my heart is back home with my family".
This is a scenario that has been made all the more possible with the express lane's proposal, easing some of the stresses that RSE workers face with the knowledge that access to both home and income will be somewhat less restricted.
"I think it gives people certainty and confidence to plan ahead," Evans said. "It makes life easier knowing that they can return."