Coronavirus: Hundreds of Vanuatuan seasonal workers still stranded in NZ

RSE workers picking apples.
RSE workers picking apples. Photo credit: RNZ / Peter Fowler

There are calls for the Government to put more pressure on Vanuatu to repatriate its citizens with hundreds of seasonal visa holders stranded in New Zealand due to COVID-19.

Some got home before COVID-19 gripped New Zealand, but about 500 Vanuatuans working in Central Otago for orchard and grape harvests became stuck when Vanuatu closed its borders.

The horticulture and viticulture sectors in the district rely heavily on Vanuatuan seasonal workers.

Seasonal Solutions chief executive Helen Axby said many of them had been here since October and were due to go home in May.

"They don't particularly want to be here and many here would be a lot happier if we could send them home to have a rest and recover," she said.

Visa conditions did not allow them to work outside Central Otago, but common sense prevailed and about half the group went to Marlborough yesterday for work normally done by Fijian seasonal workers.

But work was running out for those remaining in Central Otago, she said.

"We're in discussions with our local Civil Defence to ensure that anyone who is running short of money is able to access assistance with food and things like reducing rents and making sure their basic expenses are covered."

GrapeVision viticulturist James Dicey said the situation was looking especially grim until the Marlborough work was secured.

"We've had very close to a humanitarian crisis going on," he said.

"I spent personally $500 a week on rice and chicken and vegetables. We've had local grocery owners providing vouchers as well and it's been really great to see the community really rally around some very valuable members of the community."

But the abundance of seasonal workers also meant there were less hours available for full-time locals normally employed over the winter.

For the Vanuatuans, in addition to being stuck in a foreign country far longer than expected in the midst of a global pandemic, Cyclone Harold had also wreaked havoc in their home country earlier this year.

Remarkable Orchards owner Sid Birtles said the situation had taken a toll on their mental health.

"It hasn't been easy for the boys that's for sure. They've been away from home six months, seven months, if not maybe a bit longer," he said.

"We realise the Covid thing has had a bearing on the whole event but from a government point of view - on both fronts - their well-being should be the main objective. To get them home."

Many in the industry wanted to see the government doing more to repatriate them.

But if they did get home, there were concerns about what it would mean for the coming season.

Seasonal workers had a five-month stand down before they could return to work in New Zealand.

Summerfruit New Zealand chairperson Tim Jones said normally, backpackers, locals and seasonal visa holders accounted for a third each of the harvest workforce.

With backpackers unlikely to arrive, it would be a disaster if the five-month stand down was rigourously enforced.

"We will be looking for upwards of 4500 people to come and pick and pack the summerfruit crop starting in the middle of December. Without the backpackers we've normally had we'll need to use as many Kiwis as possible so we're keen to get the word out that there's a lot of work available here," Jones said.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said work to repatriate the Vanuatuans was ongoing and 13 seasonal workers got home last week.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said the government was considering the possibility of waiving the five-month stand down.

RNZ

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