Footage of stranded RSE workers in Hastings during the flooding caused by Cyclone Gabrielle sparked questions from the Pasifika community across Aotearoa as to why the rescue took hours. But the message from Pasifika people in Hastings is clear – help now, ask questions later.
Recognised Seasonal Employees, mainly from the Pacific, come to Aotearoa for better pay, living conditions and quality of life. Essentially, RSE workers do a job that New Zealanders don’t want to do – picking fruit.
This week, hundreds of RSE in Hawkes Bay were left stranded as the flooding caused by Cyclone Gabrielle swept through their work cabins – accommodation organised by their employers.
Footage from Tongan RSE in Hastings surfaced showing men forced to find safety on roofs as mattresses, tables and other belongings floated around them.
Chairman of the Pacific Response Coordination Team of the Pacific Leadership Forum Pakilau Manase Lua says those workers were stranded on the roof from around 9am to 4pm.
The community in Hastings have rallied together to help the workers, including Poly Active HB – a group that provides free exercise classes in the area.
Last week they had to cancel classes due to the cyclone warnings and now the group have put their hands up to help shelter the RSE workers, seeking mattresses, blankets, men’s clothing and shoes, toiletries, towels and perishable goods on their behalf.
Sharon Malaitai from Poly Active HB said on Facebook Live that the men were rescued with nothing else other than the clothes they are wearing.
“I don’t know how long they’ve been in the water, so a lot of them are cold and hungry,” Malaitai says.
Hundreds of RSE workers are scattered between five evacuation centres: Flaxmere Community Centre & FlaXrock, EFKS Hastings NZ (Malamalama o Keriso), Ascend Hastings on Omahu Road, Te Aranga Marae and Cook Islands Hall in Flaxmere.
Malaitai says one of the RSE workers shared with her that the workers woke up around 6am on Tuesday to find water halfway up the side of their beds.
“By 8am, the workers decided to brave the walk to town to get supplies. When they returned to their cabins, it was completely flooded and they had to get onto the roof for safety quickly,” she says.
“Some of them climbed the apple trees to take shelter there and they were also eating the apples because they were starving.
“The men managed to cut bottles in half to use as cups and scoop flood water to drink while they waited for help.”
The Ministry of Health says floodwaters can carry bugs that cause disease from the ground surface, septic tanks and sewerage systems.
Malaitai admits that she’s been disappointed by the government agencies that she has reached out to for help as they’ve been slow to act.
“I’ve had a few groups come back to me, angry at the employers for not helping their workers during this time, but they have no idea that the employers are also struggling too,” she says.
“I understand that they [employers] should have had an evacuation plan in place for the RSE workers, but this is not the time to be angry.
“We simply need help. The workers and their families need food, water and even underwear.
“Some of the men are having to wear women’s clothes because that’s all we had at the moment,” she says.
“I wish we would take away the barriers that are in place to receive aid fast and just be kind and helpful in these devastating circumstances.”
Malaitai says staff from Mr. Apple NZ have stopped by this week to drop off food and that they are extremely saddened to see their employees cold and struggling.
“The employers are grateful for the community support because they’ve lost everything and aren’t in a position to house their employees,” she says.
Poly Active HB are still receiving more people who have been rescued and are now preparing for the aftermath of the flooding. They’re in desperate need of portaloos as the number of people continues to increase in each centre.
“We’re expecting another 30 RSE workers today and so we’re heading over to Flaxmere AOG church hall to set up the space for them,” Malaitai says.
They’ve worked around the clock to ensure there has been cooked food for those stranded, translators in each centre, shower facilities available and vehicles ready to pick up donations from the community in Hastings.
“Civil Defence has issued out a call for everyone to stay off the roads unless you’re working in emergency services or transporting donations such as the work we’re doing, hence why we’re doing the drives out to families who want to donate.”
Malaitai has clearly found inspiration in the resilience of the RSE workers left stranded without essentials by the floods.
“Despite losing everything and being away from the comfort of their homes, their spirits remain high.”
This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.