Vanuatu’s approach to repatriating seasonal workers stuck in Central Otago may be motivated more by economics than fears of Covid-19, an orchardist and an orchard 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 Vanuatuan officials were waiting for.
Orchardists and viticulturists were willing to pay for flights home for the men and he questioned if leaving the workers here was politically motivated.
Mr McNally said it would be cheaper to pay for flights home than 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 but Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme workers are also key contributors to the country’s 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.
‘‘Everyone has lost their jobs.’’
Being stuck for more than a month after he was supposed to return tohis wife and sons (11 and
14) 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.
Seasonal Solutions chief executive Helen Axby said the Alexandra company initially had 703 Vanuatuans stuck in Central Otago. Of those, 296 had been relocated to Marlborough in the past several weeks to replace workers from Fiji and Vanuatu who were unable to enter New Zealand due to border closures.
‘‘We got all the necessary permissions and variations to their visa conditions to transfer them to Marlborough.’’
A further 112 Vanuatuan workers were on winter crews still in work, Ms Axby said.
‘‘But 295 are still stranded’’, waiting for variations tovisa conditions.
To help them, winter work was being shared between orchards and vineyards, she said.
‘‘That is until such time as we can get them home.
‘‘Which is where they want to be — and if you had the choice between a Pacific island and an Otago winter, who can blame them?’’
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,’’ the ministry said.
Republic of Vanuatu Consulgeneral to New Zealand Mckenzie Kalotiti said repatriation plans were being discussed for the most vulnerable RSE workers but details were still to be finalised.
– Two new cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in New Zealand on Tuesday.