Uncertainty hangs over fruit pickers' future

Hundreds of hopeful seasonal workers are nervously awaiting the arrival of the next picking season, as New Zealand decides whether to let them into the country amid fears about the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Manager of the Falealili Seasonal Workers Programme, Tuatagaloa Joe Annandale, said his programme alone has hundreds of workers waiting to get back into New Zealand by October.. 

Hundreds more from the Government seasonal work scheme are also hoping to return to the country, where they can make enough money for both them and their family in a single season. 

“It’s the million, billion dollar question,” Tuatagaloa told the Samoa Observer.

“We’ve asked the authorities in New Zealand to please address this question and we don’t know what is going to happen.”

On Monday, New Zealand Member of Parliament David Seymour called on Immigration New Zealand to allow workers from COVID-free Samoa to come in with no quarantine requirements to help fill a predicted labour shortage in horticulture.

Despite a major economic downturn led by the pandemic, the Minister said he doesn’t believe newly unemployed people in New Zealand would be willing to take up the fruit-picking work.

“My appeal […] is this: come to the table and advocate for the horticulture sector. Open up to Samoa so the industry can have a season with sufficient pickers,” Mr. Seymour said.

Next week, over one hundred returned seasonal workers will finish their two-week village-based quarantine in Poutasi, if they all test negative for COVID-19 at the conclusion of the programme on Thursday.

In a few weeks, the Samoa Business Hub runs business workshops to ensure that workers invest their money wisely.

That has been Tuatagaloa’s goal from the beginning. He established the Falealili programme to guarantee workers leaving Samoa for seasonal work take home all their pay, instead of letting family or church leaders collect it on their behalf and spend it too.

He also helps workers learn to budget and spend carefully. Poutasi workers on this programme are typically only allowed to work three seasons, to save up enough money to establish a business for themselves that provides a steady income. 

But not all are ready to leave seasonal work behind. Hundreds rely on it. Tuatagaloa estimates that the workers who go through his programme bring back, on average, $5 million between them per season. 

“It’s sad. It will be serious, so, so serious for Samoa. They will have nothing to do. But they will have some good money. My advice to them is to save that money, hold onto it and invest it,” he said.

“The companies want the workers but whether they will be granted the A.T.R.s [Agreement to Recruit] to allow people to start going in October… that’s not far away now.”

So far New Zealand has not indicated it is preparing to bring any number of people into the country for seasonal work, but it has relaxed the current seasonal work scheme visa conditions to allow people stuck there to work other jobs until the next season.

“We are hoping the doors will open,” Tuatagaloa said.

“We have any number of workers on standby, the ones who have just arrived and coming out of quarantine on Friday will all put their hands up, I am sure of it.

“They earn serious money, and at home there is no work for them.” 

Many workers who obtained visa extensions will stay in New Zealand until 2021, leaving them prepared for the next fruit-picking season. But Tuatagaloa said that allowing a certain pool of workers to continue to stay on was not an ideal outcome. 

“It is why we went to this extreme extent to bring the boys home, because there is nothing for them over there; the opportunities for further contracts were limited,” he said. 

“If they are overseas for six, seven months, they should come home and reconnect, it’s important.”

The largest employer of seasonal workers across the country, New Zealand Apples and Pears, is hopeful of better results for the industry after the appointment of a new Immigration Minister.

After the former Minister, Iain Lees-Galloway, was sacked for inappropriate but consensual relationships with a member of his staff, Kris Faafoi has taken on the portfolio.

“We are very pleased to have a Minister like Kris Faafoi involved with the Recognised Seasonal Employer [R.S.E. scheme] as the Minister of Immigration,” Apples and Pears’ spokesman, Gary Jones, said.

“We are very keen to get a meeting with him as soon as possible. 

“We also want to look at getting workers back for next season and this may involve us using R.S.E. accommodation centres approved for quarantine, just like the community centres did for workers who have just returned to Samoa.”

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