Stranded seasonal workers want to go home

Robin Tuku at work in Strode Road Orchard near Clyde. He and his fellow Ni-Vanuatu workers remain...
Robin Tuku at work in Strode Road Orchard near Clyde. He and his fellow Ni-Vanuatu workers remain stuck in New Zealand due to his country’s borders being closed and a lack of effort to repatriate the men. PHOTO: JARED MORGAN
Vanuatu's approach to repatriating seasonal workers stuck in Central Otago may be motivated by economics more than fears of Covid-19, an orchardist and a worker say.

Strode Road Orchard owner Lochie McNally said Vanuatu had not had a case of Covid-19 and the disease had been effectively eliminated in New Zealand, making it difficult to understand what Ni-Vanuatu officials were waiting for.

Orchardists and viticulturists were willing to pay for flights home for the men; he questioned if leaving the workers here was politically motivated.

Mr McNally said it would be cheaper to pay for flights home than to keep paying the men, in his case eight, as work ran out.

The hospitality and tourism sector accounts for more than 40% of Vanuatu’s GDP; the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme workers are key contributors to that economy.

Robin Tuku, who has worked at Strode Road Orchard under the scheme for nine years, said his homeland’s economy was badly affected by Covid-19, particularly the tourism sector.

Being stuck more than a month after he was supposed to return to his wife and 11- and 14-year-old sons was stressful.

"My family misses me. They call me every night and say ‘when are you coming home?’."

A conversation between the two countries’ governments had to happen, he said.

In a statement the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the measures Vanuatu had put in place at the border to prevent the spread of Covid-19 were sovereign matters for Vanuatu to comment on.

New Zealand last week sent two humanitarian flights to support the response to Tropical Cyclone Harold in Vanuatu.

"These flights also presented an opportunity to return 48 Vanuatu citizens and permanent residents (including 13 RSE workers) to Vanuatu at the request of [their] Government."

Republic of Vanuatu Consul-general to New Zealand Mckenzie Kalotiti said repatriation plans were being discussed for the most vulnerable RSE workers and details were still to be finalised.

"When the repatriation does eventuate there will be a phased approach given current restrictions in place."

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