Sunday, 09 April 2023 14:25

Swift action to support RSE workers

Written by  Kat Pickford
Kings House Church provided refuge to RSE workers. Photo Credit: Richard Brimer Kings House Church provided refuge to RSE workers. Photo Credit: Richard Brimer

As incredible scenes of seasonal workers stranded on rooftops emerged during the flooding in Hawke's Bay in February, local businesses and community groups leapt into action, providing emergency shelter, clothing and food.

Vili Malaitai, founder and director of the Flaxmere-based Pacific health and wellbeing group PolyActive went to the nearest Civil Defence centre to see if he could help impacted Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme workers. "There were lots of RSE boys there with nowhere to go, no one to call. They were far away from their homes and families and most of them had lost everything, so I knew straight away I had to do something to help," Vili says.

He put up a Facebook post asking for mattresses, blankets, clothing and food and water for the displaced workers and was blown away by the response. “People came out of nowhere with donations, it was amazing,” he says. “I haven’t witnessed anything like this before… It made me realise there is still a lot of good in our community."

Local businesses have made donations of food, clothing, and other essential items, while local churches provided emergency accommodation to the displaced workers immediately after Cyclone Gabrielle tore through the area. In the wake of the event, New Zealand Immigration (NZI) Refugee and Migrant Services General Manager Fiona Whiteridge said all the 690 RSE workers displaced by the flooding were accounted for and safe, and NZI was working with its Pacific partners to help ensure workers could continue to work in New Zealand if they wished to.

Thornhill Horticultural Contracting general manager Nick Bibby says when they saw the extent of the flooding, they immediately cancelled the flights of 120 people due to fly in from Pacific nations to help with vineyard pruning over winter, and offered their beds to RSE workers impacted by the flooding.

The industry learned the value of being nimble and working together during the Covid-19 pandemic, Nick says. “Some strong relationships were created during Covid and as an industry we’re really good at pooling together, sharing beds and resources, to get the work done.”

As the community turned to clean up mode, Vili hopes the RSE workers won’t be forgotten. “What a lot of those boys went through was traumatic and shocking, the number one priority needs to be their mental health.”

While NZI said RSE workers would continue to receive a minimum of 30 hours per week at $22.10 per hour and be able to work in regions unaffected by the cyclone using the RSE limited visa, Vili says many of them are struggling. “Some of the boys are not working much at the moment and they are worried about earning enough money to pay their rent and support their families back home.”

He is continuing to check on them and is organising food deliveries as required. “If we can help lighten their load so they don’t have to worry as much, that’s going to make a big difference.” And despite the devastation, community spirit is strong. “We’ve got a solid community here in Flaxmere, full of love. It’s a terrible situation, but it has brought out the best in us.”

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