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New Zealand: Pacific Guest Workers
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New Zealand: Pacific Guest Workers
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Empowered in Hong Kong

While most industrialized nations are trying to prevent economic migrants from crossing their borders, New Zealand has quietly opened its door to thousands of seasonal guest workers from five Pacific Island nations. Not only are Kiwi businesses happy to have the extra labor, but also worker remittances go directly to where they're needed most: poor villages on islands such as Vanuatu and Tonga.

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Segment 1

TITLE
Pacific Guest Workers
VOICEOVER
The Pacific Dawn slides into Vanuatu's Port Vila harbor. Onboard are 2,000 mainly Australian passengers. Local traders frantically prepare for the onslaught. The visitors will spend AUD$400,000 dollars in just eight hours in port. But there's one hard economic reality: despite this weekly splash of cash by the cruise ships, Vanuatu cannot survive on tourism alone. A couple of years ago, an international survey declared Vanuatu to be the happiest place on earth -- and while it may be so, when you move away from the cruise ships and all the tourist trinkets here, you find a very different country. By western standards, Vanuatu and many other South Pacific island states are nations in poverty. Here, only one in five people have access to electricity. If you want basic healthcare or any form of education, you have to pay for it. And, like many other countries in this region, people living in the outer islands and villages are being drawn to the city in search of work to pay for these services. The only problem is there are no jobs to be had. Twenty-seven-year-old Rene Nimisa is acutely aware that he lives in a world of haves and have-nots. Like thousands of others, Rene can't find steady work. Up in the hills in the shanty settlements behind town, he takes us to his family compound.
INTERVIEWER
How many people live here?
RENE NIMISA
I think 20.
VOICEOVER
A decade ago his parents sent him here from his home island of Tanna, investing the family savings so he could finish high school, get a job, and support his clan. His wife Gloria works six days a week serving tourists in a cafe.
GLORIA NIMISA
It's too hard ... it's too expensive to live here.
VOICEOVER
They can't even afford to keep the family together. One of their two daughters lives with grandparents back on Tanna. Rene wants more than this for his family, but there's never enough money.
RENE NIMISA
This is my house.
VOICEOVER
But now there's hope. For first time in his life, the chance of a real job. Rene has been offered seasonal work picking fruit as part of a new guest worker scheme in New Zealand. He doesn't understand the details, but hopes for the best.
RENE NIMISA
I won't feel good. I'll feel sad. But I have to go -- it's work. We need the money, and when the children grow up they'll need clothing, education, and food. The money will help.
SIGN
Maximillions
VOICEOVER
At the local club and casino, the guest workers anxiously await a briefing.
DICK EADE [Labor Contractor]
Okay, well welcome everybody. Nice to see you all here. We'll have a roll call ...
VOICEOVER
Kiwi expatriate Dick Eade is a contractor, hiring teams for New Zealand's bold experiment in labor mobility.
DICK EADE
So I'm going to speak to you in English today, because when you get down there, everybody will speak English. The tax on NZD$750 ...
VOICEOVER
Taxation, rent, fund transfers, even New Zealand's cold weather -- there's a bewildering amount of information to absorb. The men also learn that they're making history. Facing chronic labor shortages, last year New Zealand took 400 Pacific islanders in a trial scheme called the Recognized Seasonal Employer program, or RSE. It's been such a huge success that this year, 5,000 workers from here, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tonga, the Solomons, and Samoa are all headed to the "Slice of Heaven". They can stay for seven months a year and will be paid the award rate of NZD$12 an hour -- the same as a New Zealand casual laborer. For these men, it's a fortune.
DICK EADE
NZD$12 an hour in New Zealand is 900 vatu [VUV] here. Now 900 vatu is one day's pay here, minimum. So they're earning in one hour what they would earn in one day here.
VOICEOVER
The beauty of this scheme is that remittances go directly to the villagers, bypassing the region's notoriously corrupt and incompetent governments. Lionel Kaluat is Vanuatu's Labor Commissioner. Without a guest worker scheme, he sees a bleak future. He's watched the civil unrest in neighboring Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and worries that expectations of the younger generation will not be met. Already, 10,000 high school students graduate every year, with high hopes but little chance of employment. Eight hundred Ni-Vanuatu are now working in New Zealand, but he wants to send 5,000 abroad.
INTERVIEWER
Is this, in one sense, a substitute for foreign aid?
LIONEL KALUAT [Labor Commissioner, Vanuatu]
Definitely. It's going to become the second biggest income earner for foreign income for Vanuatu. If we grow this seasonal worker [program] to an extent where we get up to 5,000 workers, you're looking at probably leading the table in the foreign income exchange, apart from the tourism.
SIGN
Short flight to the bright lights: fly to Brisbane and beyond with Pacific Blue
VOICEOVER
Soon, workers may also be heading for the bright lights of Australia. For decades, the idea of Pacific guest workers has been taboo in Canberra due to fears of illegal overstayers and the creation of a permanent underclass. But now the new Australian Government is closely examining the New Zealand model. While Rene and the other laborers ultimately dream of working in Australia, they're wary of the past. This is a culture with a rich oral tradition, and everyone knows the story of when the white man first came from Australia. Arriving not as tourists, but as kidnappers -- the so-called "blackbirders". From the 1860s, more than 60,000 islanders were taken to cut sugarcane in Queensland. The elders remind Rene that some went willingly, but others were forced to leave at gunpoint.
ELDER
When the elders went out fishing at night with a torch, they came ashore in a small boat and grabbed them. They were yelling out, but they were already taken to the ship.
RENE NIMISA
Can we trust the white man now, that they won't do what they did before?
ELDER
I hope the white man will pay you well and look after you, and then you come back here with money and you help your home and island.

Segment 2

VOICEOVER
The big day has arrived: it's time for Dick Eade's team to leave for New Zealand.
DICK EADE
There's a lot of joking business going on. I get called a blackbirder, which I deny and say I'm not, I'm a white birder.
VOICEOVER
For Rene, the excitement is tinged with sadness. He'll be away for seven months before returning to carve out his little slice of heaven for his family. Pacific Islanders and Asians have been working in small ad hoc programs in New Zealand for 30 years, many illegally. What's changed drastically is the scale and organization of this scheme.
SIGN
Welcome to NZ our Vanuatu orchard staff
CLIVE EXELBY [Fruit Packing Manager]
How are you? Welcome to New Zealand. We welcome you even though you wear an Aussie shirt!
VOICEOVER
Now in New Zealand there's a big emphasis on what's called "pastoral care." And that's the job of Clive Exelby, manager of Aongatete Coolstores, a company specializing in picking and packing kiwi fruit.
CLIVE EXELBY
From the moment that they land in New Zealand we have to make sure -- we don't have to necessarily pay for, or provide for everything -- but we have to make sure that every need is taken care of.
VOICEOVER
There's a quick introduction to New Zealand's culinary delights, then a drive to the small township of Katikati, on the North Island's "Bay of Plenty". Home for the next seven months will be this caravan park. The workers get their first hard lesson in the user-pays economy.
CLIVE EXELBY
This is a shower with a NZD$2 slot for the water that you'll get. Nice warm water. Alternative? Just over here there's a cold stream. You can swim in the cold stream if you want to. Not for me, but you might like it.
VOICEOVER
And there will be other costs: the men will have to repay half of their airfare, and fork out for power, food, and lodgings.
CLIVE EXELBY
There are six vans that you will occupy and you know which three are going in this van, three in the next one. You only have one key, one chance ...
VOICEOVER
The vans are small, and will be extremely cold in the New Zealand winter, but there are no complaints from Rene.
RENE NIMISA
Are there devil spirits here? No devil here?
MAN
No devil here.
INTERVIEWER
What do you think?
RENE NIMISA
Very good, very good.
CLIVE EXELBY
We are audited on accommodation. New Zealand immigration people will come to make sure that we've complied, we're providing suitable accommodation for these people. It also means that we have to provide transport to and from the workplace, and ability to get to cultural activities: taking them to church on Sundays, all those types of things.
VOICEOVER
Clive Exelby takes his pastoral duties seriously. It turns out he's a former pastor of this evangelical church. But his team also has a few surprises. Of the 16 men, three are also Christian pastors. They've discreetly signed on as laborers to check out the scheme before recommending it to their congregations back home. While most of the team get in the spirit of things, Rene's not so sure. Monday morning, and it's down to business: the gentle art of picking kiwi fruit. New Zealand horticulture depends on 40,000 seasonal workers each year. Finding staff was a near-impossible task: extremely low unemployment, unreliable backpacker labor, and a steady exodus of New Zealanders to Australia. The Pacific RSE scheme, says Clive Exelby, was born out of necessity.
CLIVE EXELBY
The alternatives aren't worth bearing or even thinking about. If you can't pack the fruit, what are you going to do? You can't get the work done. I mean, the grower's losing, we as a company are going to lose, and New Zealand as a country would lose a tremendous amount of money.
VOICEOVER
Across the Tasman in Australia, labor shortages are costing fruit and vegetable producers AUD$700 million a year in lost productivity.
WOMAN
So, in here, you could probably pick two fruit at once, like that.
VOICEOVER
But here, the horticultural industry now has ambitious plans to nearly double production over the next five years, all on the back of the RSE scheme.
CLIVE EXELBY
There is 25,000 people in the Pacific alone who could come onto the workplace, both men and women, at any time, and so our 5,000 are just really scraping the surface, you know?
VOICEOVER
One of the strongest arguments against guest worker schemes around the world is the contentious issue of illegal overstayers. New Zealand's solution? Laborers are the employer's responsibility, the logic being that a happy, well-paid guest worker is more likely to play by the rules and go home at the end of the contract.
CLIVE EXELBY
So after their seven-month period here, we have to guarantee that they hop on the plane and go home. Otherwise we will have to pay New Zealand immigration up to $3,000 per person for them to find them in New Zealand and to put them out of the country.
VOICEOVER
Still, there have been problems. On the streets of Auckland we join Melino Maka of the Tongan Advisory Council. He says most of the 50,000 Tongans in New Zealand live around here in the southern suburbs of Auckland. There are now also several hundred Tongan RSE guest workers in the country. Tonight, he's looking for one who's quit his job and is now wanted by the authorities.
MELINO MAKA [New Zealand Tongan Advisory Council]
I said think about your family and what is best for you. Organize yourself to go back home before they deport you. Once they pick you up, you know, you're gone.
VOICEOVER
We find Saia 'Aholelei living in the garage of a suburban home. He claims he was hired under false pretences by another kiwi fruit company, brought in at the end of the picking season and only paid for the few days worked each week.
MELINO MAKA
By the time they take all their expenses sometimes it's less than a hundred, sometimes you get two hundred. Plus their living conditions were smaller than this for five of them, and they pay $1,000 a fortnight.
REPORTER
A thousand a fortnight?
MELINO MAKA
Yes, for a room about same or smaller than this, for five of them living in it.
VOICEOVER
Saia 'Aholelei refuses to leave, but if immigration find him, he risks being deported and never being allowed back into the country. Another team of disillusioned Tongan workers has already quit and gone home. It's a fine line between opportunity and exploitation. Even the Tongans admit that Vanuatu has done a much better job at hiring workers. Back in Vanuatu, recruiter Dick Eade is on his way to check up on one of his successes.
DICK EADE
Hey Johnny! Welcome back, good to see you.
VOICEOVER
Johnny Taleo is just back from four months of strawberry picking near Auckland. He's returned with NZD$6,000, the equivalent of three years' wages in Vanuatu. That's if he could ever find a job.
JOHNNY TALEO [RSE Worker]
This I built with the money from New Zealand when I came back, yes. And, let's see, material, I just got it again for extension of my house.
DICK EADE
On the other end,
JOHNNY TALEO
The other end, yes. I got the cement, I got the timber here, already got some iron roofs, here.
DICK EADE
So this is the house that strawberries built?
JOHNNY TALEO
Yeah, that's the house that strawberries build. Yeah, all my house strawberries.
VOICEOVER
Here it's difficult to see any losers with this scheme. The results for these villagers are tangible.
DICK EADE
It's like the ripples in the pond. It's that one guy that I'm sending, but he's influencing or having an effect on a whole ring of people like the ripples in a pond. Maybe one person is having an effect on 10 or 20 people back here, and it's good to see.
VOICEOVER
Over the decades, Australian and New Zealand officials have poured billions of aid dollars into the troubled Pacific region, often with questionable results. Perhaps this simple labor program may finally provide a true course to that elusive "Pacific solution."
TITLE
[end credits]