Kiwifruit workers from the Pacific islands due to fly home when New Zealand went into lockdown closing its borders, were given work and accommodation at Katikati.

The 48 seasonal workers on the RSE scheme arrived in New Zealand in October and had been working in Hawke's Bay. Since workers expected for the kiwifruit harvest had not arrived in the country, Apata Group Ltd worked with Immigration NZ which approved a Variation of Condition to their visa for the group, which meant the workers could move area and work for another employer.

Apata's HR manager Sheryl Thocolich says their pastoral carer Glenda Reid put in a good effort and came up with accommodation at the Aongatete Outdoor Education Centre (AOEC) which was approved by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment for them to use.

The men, from Vanuatu, Niue and the Solomon Islands, arrived at the AOEC on May 5 and stayed for six weeks.

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AOEC trustee and head of projects, Keith Pyle says they were privileged to be able to help out this group who had been caught in NZ due to the Covid-19 epidemic.

"The workers would have returned home if it was not for the pandemic closing borders and flights at the end of March.

"Then many of them had their homes affected by cyclone Harold that hit Vanuatu on April 9."

AOEC manager Karen Tobich says when the workers arrived they really felt the cold, so they sent out an SOS to local communities for blankets, socks and beanies.

"We had an overwhelming response from the community and from much further afield, and even had lots of blankets and clothing donated."

Lots of blankets were donated to help keep the Pacific island workers warm.
Lots of blankets were donated to help keep the Pacific island workers warm.

Karen says having the men at the Centre was a humbling experience.

"The workers were so friendly and loved it here. Their English was not very good, but they were lovely to deal with, so thankful and so humble.

"Their way of life is very different than what we know here."

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One of the RSE workers gives a thumbs up to the Aongatete Outdoor Education Centre.
One of the RSE workers gives a thumbs up to the Aongatete Outdoor Education Centre.

This was the first time seasonal workers had stayed at the education centre since it's usually fully booked with school camps, youth and adult education groups.

"It was only due to Covid that we had the opportunity to help," Karen says.

Keith says they were fortunate as the arrival of the workers offset the losses the Centre would have incurred due to cancelling school camps and holiday programmes as a result of the epidemic.

"It was a win-win for both parties."

Due to other bookings, the AOEC was unable to accommodate the workers through to September.

"The boys loved it here and would have preferred to stay here while stuck in NZ, says Karen.

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"Ultimately many of them are desperate to get home."