A free education development programme for RSE workers


WALTER NUNGNUNG finished school in Vanuatu when he was 13, but he certainly hadn’t finished with his education. For the past 11 years, Walter has left his home on Ambrym Island and come to New Zealand with the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme, for seasonal work in vineyard. While here, he has tapped into the learning opportunities of Vakameasina, a free education development programme for RSE workers from the Pacific Islands, funded by New Zealand Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT).

Walter started at Vakameasina with a “foundational course”, including lessons on finances, health and human rights, then branched out into specifics like solar power. He has also done a leadership course, in part to help him in his job as crew supervisor with Thornhill. Walter is now studying the New Zealand road code, and is eager to keep on learning. “I finished school at grade 6, so when I came here and this opportunity came, I thought, ‘this can help me for my education’.”

Walter has a wife and children back on Ambrym, and says the past 18 months have been “very difficult”, with Covid-19 initially stranding him and his crew in New Zealand after the 2019/2020 summer season. When repatriation flights became available, Walter decided to stay on, knowing work would be difficult to come by in Vanuatu, and that New Zealand contractors were short of summer and winter vineyard labour. As he digs into his second winter of pruning, he is pleased to be able to send money back to his home, “so that I can help my family”. Earnings over the past 18 months have enabled his family to build a house, “so I am very happy”, Walter says.

Gordon Bahe, from Vanuatu’s Malakula Island, was also on his first RSE term when he came here for the 2019/2020 summer season. For the past 18 months he has been sending money home for the build of a “big house” on the island, while studying the building course through Vakameasina here in Blenheim, as well as the cooking course and now the road code.

The continued season for these RSE workers has not only yielded houses, with Narufa Nakis, from Vanuatu’s Tanna Island, now the owner of a Land Rover back home, which he plans to use for a business when Tanna’s tourism sector is back in gear. Nrufa is studying the road code as a step towards his licence, and also plans to do a small engines course through Vakameasina.

When the Vakameasina pilot programme was kicked off 10 years ago, Anne Barrer, who spent 26 years working as a tutor at Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology (NMIT), was one of the initial tutors, helping teach everything from basic English to healthy living, to help the RSE workers adapt to their time in New Zealand.

Those essential skills are key to the programme, says Anne, who has been Vakameasina regional coordinator in Marlborough for the past seven years. But one of the things she loves most is when students seek learnings that can change their lives at home in the islands, some of which are very remote. “The idea was a gift of knowledge, and skills they can take back with them.”

The programme, fully funded from MFAT’s aid programme, has developed over the years, thanks to feedback from the men and women who take part. That includes a “tiered” programme, so returning workers can move beyond the essential course and into something they are keen to explore, such as small business development, finances, building, solar power, leadership, small engines, plumbing and horticulture.

And it continues to evolve, says Anne, who’s preparing to roll out a new money management course through ANZ, with the bank’s original programme fleshed out to fit the 20 hours of learning required by Vakameasina. She’s also keen to run a women’s leadership group, once she has the numbers to get the course off the ground. “I absolutely love the job,” says Anne, who has established a group of 10 tutors in Marlborough.

She says some groups finish one course and immediately think about the next, such as a crew from Fiji that has gone to Hawke’s Bay for work, “but have flagged that they want to do a building course when they get back”. Last year was a difficult time for many of the RSE workers, and the tutor group “recognised that the guys were a bit despondent”, says Anne. So, they worked to lighten the load, introducing more relaxing activities, games and cooking. Their role is as teacher not pastoral care, she notes, but they’re “caring educators” focussed on “empowering” their students. facebook.com/vakameasina/

Obedsali Bebe and Anne Barrer

A long stay

When Nolan Ilaisa left Malakula Island in Vanuatu in 2019, he expected to be away from his partner and baby son for one New Zealand summer. But 18 months on, his son is three years old and Nolan is in his second vineyard pruning season through the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme.

Covid border closures mean there are 5300 RSE workers still in the country, having arrived in 2019 and stayed well beyond their expectations. It’s a “tough decision” to remain away from family, but jobs are scarce in Vanuatu right now, and Nolan says he’s happy to make the sacrifice in order to send money home, while also saving for tools and machines he can use in his furniture making business back on the island.

I meet Nolan at the Vakameasina (see main story) road code course in Blenheim, being run out of a classroom at Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology (NMIT). He’s come from a 10 hour shift of pruning vines – the second day of the season – but is determined to make it to every session. “I am thinking of getting my licence. That’s my aim so I didn’t want to miss anything, and try my best to attend every class.”

He’s also done the Vakameasina Leadership course, which helps him in his role as house leader for Thornhill Contracting, and will also come in use back in Vanuatu, he says. This is Nolan’s first stint in New Zealand with the RSE scheme, which was established in April 2007 to allow horticulture and viticulture industries to recruit workers from overseas for up to seven months of seasonal work.

Border closures meant that last winter there were no new RSE workers for pruning, but summer crews unable to return home were trained for the winter roles. A year on, a tranche of 2000 RSE workers have been able to come into New Zealand via managed isolation facilities, to be shared between horticulture and viticulture industries, but labour is still tight for pruning in Marlborough.

Workers like Nolan, who decided to stay on in the country instead of taking repatriation flights home, are owed a “big thank-you”, says Guy Lissaman, chair of the Marlborough Labour Governance Group (see page 20). “As an industry we need to acknowledge the commitment and significant sacrifices the RSE workers have made to stay on in New Zealand since lockdown. They have opted to remain in New Zealand to work and send remittances back home to support family in the Pacific Islands, where there is currently no tourism or work opportunities.”

Guy says the Marlborough wine industry would struggle to survive without the on-going supply of RSE workers. “We hope to see a two-way bubble opening to the Pacific countries later in 2021, so the workers can get home and replacement workers come back to New Zealand.”

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