By Don Farmer
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Low skilled migrant workers from the Solomon Islands employed in horticulture and viticulture in Wairarapa are struggling on many fronts to get a fair deal.
That’s the thrust of comprehensive research carried out Lois Kusilifu of Masterton, who has published a thesis on the experiences of the workers as part of her work towards a Masters degree in Indigenous Studies at the University of Otago.
Apart from low pay Mrs Kusilifu identified several other aspects of the islanders’ employment which causes anxiety.
The migrants worked long hours with little time left for leisure, and what free time they had was mostly spent resting up or sleeping.
Another sticking point was that contracts required the workers to be available for work every day of the week from 7am to 5pm.
This meant the deeply religious Solomon Islanders were often unable to attend church, and Sunday work conflicted with their religious beliefs.
Women workers who had been interviewed during research gathering had spoken of “abusive and foul language” used in their workplaces, which they struggled to accept as culturally they did not swear.
Mrs Kusilifu’s findings have been backed up by prominent Pasifika advocate Luther Toloa, who attended a meeting of the Wairarapa Institute of International Affairs this week and listened to a talk given by Mrs Kusilifu.
Mr Toloa said from what he had been told the workers had little left over to send to their families in the Solomons after having paid for accommodation and food.
He said even matters like trying to stay warm in winter was a problem for the workers who came from a sub-tropical climate.
The islanders come to Wairarapa, along with other areas in the country, under the Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme to make up a huge shortfall in labour in the horticulture and viticulture industries.
Mrs Kusilifu has determined that they sought to earn enough money to allow them to return to their homeland and build permanent homes, pay school fees for their children, or start up small business ventures such as poultry or pig farming, owning a trading store, or starting taxi services.
Mr Toloa said RSE had “good intent” but was weighted in favour of the employer.
“Apart from better wages there has to be a better understanding of the workers’ cultural and pastoral needs. They are a strict Christian country,” he said.
Mr Toloa said the onus was on all parties signed up to RSE to arrive at conditions that suited.
“I am pretty sure employers could manoeuvre around the problem of Sunday work.”
He said it should be known the Solomon Islanders were filling a gap in the labour market and that New Zealand should have learned from history.
“But I don’t know if we have.
“You have only got to look at the situation in the 1960s when there was an acute shortage of factory workers, and immigrant workers from the Pacific Islands were bought in.
“Then that work dried up and it ended in dawn raids in Auckland.”
Mr Toloa said workers from that era were labelled overstayers and deported.
“It was one of the most shameful times in our history.”