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BusinessAugust 10, 2022

Paying to work: Life as a seasonal worker

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My partner left home six weeks ago for seasonal work in Aotearoa. He’s living in a house with 23 others and hasn’t kept more than $370 for a fortnight’s work.

As told to Madeleine Chapman.

My partner and I live in a small Pacific Island nation. We have two children and we’re trying, like everyone else, to make a life for ourselves. 

Life here isn’t cheap – we pay rent, and school fees. Food costs are high because a lot of it is imported and the price of fuel is going up around the world. We are very lucky compared to many – I earn enough to cover all our expenses – but we haven’t been able to save any money to cope with a setback and we’re trying to save to buy a house one day.

So, we made a big decision: my partner would leave his job and try working on the seasonal worker’s scheme in New Zealand. The RSE scheme in both Australia and New Zealand has benefited many Pacific Island people. Wages here are often very low and employment opportunities are limited. 

We didn’t know a huge amount about the scheme before my partner travelled. Perhaps we should have looked into it more. He had a close family member in Australia who seemed to be making enough money to send back to build a house, and we’d heard stories of people coming back with savings over $10,000 after 7-12 months – an amount we could never save that quickly here ourselves. For many young people here it’s one of the only opportunities to earn decent money. 

We knew someone who was working for an agent and we made some enquiries. We thought it would be a few months and he would be put on a waitlist or something. But because he had a valid passport and a driver’s licence (less common since the pandemic began), he was given a place immediately and told he could leave in two weeks.

He went in to see the agent, hurriedly signed a contract and that was it; he was gone. We thought this was a chance for an adventure for him – to see a part of the world he would never otherwise get to see and to make a future for our family. My partner has only left this country once before to visit Australia. Six weeks ago, the kids and I said our goodbyes and waited to hear from him in his new home.

We video called the night he arrived and he showed us his room, except it wasn’t really his room. He was sharing a room with three other men. They had small iron beds – the kind you might see in old boarding school photos. There wasn’t even a cupboard for him to put his belongings in. He kept everything in white plastic boxes under his bed. There are six rooms in this house, so 24 men sharing one house. The rent is deducted from his wages and is $150 per week. I couldn’t believe it. How can $150 for a shared room like this be the market rate?  

Twenty-four men, each paying $150 a week. That’s $3,600 NZD per week, and it’s not the only house like that in the area. What really gets me (which is silly as it’s hardly the worst of it) is that there are washing machines and dryers in the house, but they’re coin operated. $150 per week to share a room with three others and he can’t even use the washing machine without paying extra. 

The accommodation isn’t the only deduction from his wages – he has to pay for health insurance (they don’t get to choose the provider) and the cost of flights to and from New Zealand. Transport costs are about $70 a fortnight per person, and they drive the bus themselves (my partner is one of the drivers and still pays the transport fee). They have to have the cost of uniform and equipment deducted – in my partner’s case that was nearly $200. In fact, in his early payslips, he hasn’t had more than $370 dollars in his hand after a fortnight’s work. In what other industry or workplace would this ever be acceptable?

When it comes to the work itself, my partner enjoys the physical challenge but feels the constant pressure to work harder and faster. He’s on piece rates, so he gets paid per piece picked, rather than an hourly rate. This means he feels the need to work as hard as his body can to maximise what he can earn. He says they all try not to take breaks so they can work as much as possible – they take a very short time to eat a quick lunch and are back at it. When there’s bad weather, they don’t want to work but often they will try to go in – even if it’s just for a few hours – because they worry that they won’t earn enough if they don’t.

The other problem with piece rates is that it creates an inequality of sorts between the workers – those who are fittest and strongest and have done several trips are able to earn more money by being so fast. 

Meanwhile, Australians and New Zealanders who come to work here in our home country with NGOs, private companies or donor agencies have a very different experience. They get incredible conditions – their accommodation and flights are part of their package and they live in beautiful houses paid for by their employers.  

RSE workers who are travelling to Australia and New Zealand to fill a much-needed gap get money ripped from them at every opportunity. While they may be perceived as low-skilled, Australia and New Zealand need them. Without them, the agricultural sector would be in crisis. This was made clear during Covid-19 lockdowns when there were negotiations to charter flights of workers, even when the borders were closed. So why is it so different for these men and women? Why do they have to pay for the “privilege” of working? 

These are men and women who find it difficult to speak out. People feel very grateful for this opportunity to earn more in New Zealand and Australia than they can here. It’s often made out as if they are being done a favour to be given this opportunity, with little mention of how needed they are in return. 

Often the workers going have not had the benefit of a good education – many would be functionally illiterate in English. Some can’t interpret the contracts they are signing or the pay slips they receive each fortnight. Hardly any could afford independent advice before signing contracts, even if it were encouraged. We don’t have a strong union culture here, so people don’t know what their rights are. They are, sadly, a group that is ripe for exploitation. 

You might be wondering why I’m speaking and not my partner directly. He’s scared. He’s never done anything like this before and everything is totally unfamiliar. He doesn’t know much about unions or any other institutions who might be able to help him find out if his conditions are legal or appropriate. In our country it’s not normal to complain about working conditions publicly.

He’s worried about getting “blacklisted” which would mean he couldn’t travel on the scheme again and that would rule out getting a different, better opportunity next time. Some people might say we shouldn’t complain about the conditions because our local employers aren’t offering competitive wages either. But just because people can’t earn that kind of money here, it doesn’t justify the exploitation. It actually makes it worse because their vulnerability and desire to improve their lives is being taken advantage of.  

This isn’t every RSE worker’s experience; there are many who are treated well and who have the opportunity to save money they would never otherwise get. Many people’s lives have improved because of the scheme. But that doesn’t justify the dark side – the companies that are making masses of money off these workers in a way that shouldn’t be allowed. Pacific Island people are needed to do this work and are being recruited in huge numbers. All pacific workers deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. 

I’m sure some wonder why workers stick it out and don’t come home. But when you’ve made a big decision to leave your family and country behind, it can make you determined to stick it out. There is also a sense of shame in things not working out or not being tough enough to cope. A very small minority might return, but most keep working, doing hard labour and being made to pay (physically and financially) for the privilege, all while not saying a word about it.

Keep going!