Marlborough’s seasonal workers

Vineyards worldwide are suffering from labour shortages. Rebecca Gibb MW looks at how one region is tackling the problem.

The NiVan band hails from Vanuatu; Vineyard workers in Marlborough come from South Pacific islands, thanks to an innovative scheme.
The NiVan band hails from Vanuatu; Vineyard workers in Marlborough come from South Pacific islands, thanks to an innovative scheme.

As they approached the 8km mark in the Saint Clair Vineyard half marathon earlier this year, the spirits of 4,000 runners were lifted by a group from Polynesia. Dressed in their national colours, the NiVan band hails from Vanuatu, an island nation in the South Pacific. They spend half the year in the vineyards of Marlborough, bringing to New Zealand not only their desire to work and earn money, but also their lilting voices and melodious music. Since the country opened its doors to seasonal workers from the Pacific Islands in 2007, Polynesia’s cultural contribution to the predominantly white winemaking community has been as refreshing as a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.

The growing diversity of employees in Kiwi vineyards has come through necessity. The rapid growth of New Zealand’s wine industry, which tripled in area between 2000 and 2010 from 10,197ha to 33,200ha, required a large labour force. The country’s largest wine region, Marlborough, swelled like a grape after a heavy downpour from 4,039ha in 2000 to 15,915ha in 2008 and 25,243ha in 2017 – an increase of more than 500% – and it continues to expand. However, in a small town on the north-east corner of New Zealand’s South Island there simply weren’t enough workers to cope with such growth. It was a similar story in other parts of this sparsely populated country, whether the crop was grapes, apples or kiwis. 

A new worker scheme

Recognising there was a labour issue, the New Zealand Government introduced the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme in 2007 to address the shortfall of workers in the viticulture and horticulture sector. Like any new scheme, there were plenty of criticisms, including claims that it was a cheap Pacific aid scheme. There are still occasional grumblings that local workers have been overlooked in favour of RSE workers and that it has forced wages down, but most detractors have been silenced in the past decade. From 5,000 workers in year one, there are now more than 11,000 that come annually for up to seven months – or, in the case of Kiribati and Tuvalu, as long as nine months, due to the distances they must travel to reach New Zealand and the additional costs of transport. Vance Kerslake, advocacy manager at the regional trade association Wine Marlborough, says: “We would not have a wine industry of the size that we do if we didn’t have Pacific Islanders, because there’s such a demand for vineyard work.”

Today, one in 10 people that works in the former sheep-farming region of Marlborough is now employed in the wine sector. It has the lowest unemployment rate in the country – just 2.2% compared with a national average of 4.6%, rising to more than 8% in the region of Gisborne. While some New Zealanders were concerned that employers would favour Pacific Islanders over New Zealanders, there were measures put in place to ensure this did not happen. Aaron Jay, managing director of contract labour firm Hortus, whose workforce comprises more than 70% RSE workers, explains: “The scheme is Kiwis first – if 100 Kiwis walked through the door tomorrow we would employ them but they don’t. However, as an employer you still have to show that you have tried to get Kiwis to do the jobs. Previously we were reliant on locals and backpackers to do the work but the work is really hard. Now we have a reliable workforce and we can put vines in the ground knowing we can get the work done.” 

The impact on the workers

The main group of RSE workers hails from Vanuatu, a poor island nation of about 250,000 inhabitants. Per capita income is equivalent to $152 a month (17,000 vatu) according to the Vanuatu National Statistics Office (2012) with about 10% living below the poverty line.  The average length of a ni-Vanuatu education is just 6.8 years. In the World Bank’s rankings of gross domestic product in 2017, Vanuatu sat in position number 187 out of 200. It has a GDP of $863m; the United States’ GDP is $19.4tr. Other Pacific Islands which form part of the RSE scheme include Tuvalu – with the lowest GDP ranking at $40m – along with Kiribati (198/200), Tonga (193/200) and Samoa (188/200). In New Zealand, the RSE workers are paid at least the minimum wage of NZ$16.50 ($11.23) an hour plus holiday pay, taking the rate up to $17.90 – that’s more than most workers in the Pacific Islands earn in a whole day. Vanuatu’s labour commissioner estimated that the work scheme brought the equivalent of NZ$5m to the nation’s shores in its first five years from 2007 to 2012.  What’s more, Cyclone Pam struck the island nation in 2015, leaving around 75,000 people homeless, and remittances from RSE workers have helped communities to rebuild.

In a statement to celebrate 10 years of the RSE, which has risen from 5,000 to 11,000 workers annually, Steve McGill, Immigration New Zealand’s General Manager, Settlement, Protection and Attraction said: “RSE workers are typically sending home more than 40% of their take-home income during their seven months’ stay here – currently more than $40 million per annum is been remitted back to the Pacific. Remitted earnings are mainly being used on housing and education and any visit to some of the more remote parts of sending countries shows just what a huge impact the RSE scheme has made on the ground.”  

Dr Rochelle-lee Bailey of the Australian National University found similar results when researching her PhD thesis on ni-Vanuatu RSE workers in Central Otago. Working in the vineyards with a group of early RSE workers and visiting the island, she discovered: “Earnings from New Zealand are providing access to clean water, improving housing, and medical care in Vanuatu. The production of wine in New Zealand is also enabling the children and relatives of RSE workers to obtain an education. At least four of my participants’ children are now going to university in Port Vila [the country’s capital]. Most families are keeping their children in primary and secondary schooling for longer, and these opportunites would not have happened if they did not participate in the schemes.”

Joseph Duve has spent the past decade travelling from the Vanuatu capital Port Vila to Marlborough on the RSE scheme. The 38-year-old works as a security guard when he is at home, earning about NZ$3.50 an hour. The money he has earned in New Zealand has allowed him to set up a fish market business, build a second home for his family with electricity, and allowed them to get a better education. It’s a similar story for Solomon Islander Julie Maka. She is one of a small number of women employed in the vineyards under the RSE scheme; apple orchards and packing facilities on the North Island attract more female entrants. Maka explains that she knows many women who would like to work in the vineyards, despite the physical nature of the job and the cold conditions during winter pruning, but there aren’t enough places available. However, employers like Hortus are actively seeking to redress the balance from less than 10% of their vineyard RSE workers to 20%, explains Jay. 

And Pacific Islanders are needed more than ever. At the third Labour Summit held in Marlborough in November 2017, the vineyard area was expected to increase 5.3% in 2017/18, based on nursery sales, and this year, the region requested 2,410 RSE workers, a 33% increase since 2016. Visitors to Marlborough can expect to see burly Islanders sporting colourful bandanas, harmonising in their rich tones while they plant, prune, bud rub, lift wires and manage canopies throughout the growing season. Jay explains that Hortus workers prune 6-7m vines each year and during the summer, its teams can wire-lift up to 2.5m vines in a week.

Effort required

While positive, employing RSE workers from the Pacific Islands is a convoluted and costly process which requires employers to be accredited. The accreditation needs to be renewed every three years and requires significant effort. Employers also pay for the return flights of each worker (50% of which has to be repaid from their wages during their stay) and their visa, as well as providing approved accommodation and pastoral care for each individual.  What’s more, the government requires employers to pay a bond of NZ$3,000 to prevent workers overstaying their visas and contributing to illegal immigration. Despite the costs involved, Helen Axby, CEO of Central Otago-based labour cooperative Seasonal Solutions, says the scheme is working well: “All our members want to to know is that workers will arrive on time and ready to work. The really huge advantage of RSE to vineyards and orchards is that workers return year on year, so some become quite skilled – especially in jobs such as pruning vines – and can take an important leadership role.”

The influx of more than 2,000 workers on a seasonal basis into Marlborough, a town with a population of 33,000, puts additional strain on the local housing stock. Rents have risen as the wine industry has prospered and attracted newcomers, and houses are in short supply. Some labour firms including Hortus now offer purpose-built accommodation because housing is increasingly scarce. Employers insist that this is not segregation but a necessary solution to the town’s lack of housing options. 

What’s clear is that rural New Zealand has become more culturally diverse since the start of the RSE scheme. Its churches are now filled with Polynesian faces, the sports fields are swollen by Islanders and tired runners are inspired on their way to the marathon finish line.   

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