What do solar panels and education for Melanesian youth have in common? Hard-working mothers, sisters and daughters from the Solomon Islands who travel to New Zealand each year to support their families.
As Roselyn Givi and Janet Meimana pick fruit under a scorching Hawkes Bay sun, they exchange cheeky banter in Tok Pijin, the language of the Solomon Islands. They’re teasing each other about their menfolk, babies and whether they’re picking fast enough.
They may be chatty among themselves, but this is the first time that Solomon Island women, working here under the Recognised Seasonal Employers scheme (RSE), have shared their stories.
Roselyn and Janet are among 75 Solomon Island women recruited by Pick Hawkes Bay to harvest blueberries for Gourmet Blueberries in Hawkes Bay this year.
Orchard jobs run for an arduous six to nine months of the year through the blistering heat of summer and into the numbing cold of winter. At the peak of the season workers might toil up to 12 hour days a day, six days a week. It’s not for the faint-hearted.
“We have to pick fast,” says 41-year-old Roselyn, “so we can get the minimum wage.”
“Seven kilograms per hour, that’s the minimum wage per hour,” says Janet, 31, who started her RSE work in Hawkes Bay in 2009 when she was just 22.
Neither Janet and Roselyn are content with minimum wage. They’re motivated and experienced blueberry pickers, and Janet says with pride: “I make 100 kilograms per day!”
That’s $1600 per week in the hand after costs, which is good money for the women; six months work here will equal two or three years of wages back home.
Roselyn hails from Malaita Province, about six hours boat ride east of the Solomon Islands’ capital, Honiara.
“It’s my dream that I’m here in New Zealand to work,” Roselyn says, who started off grading apples in a Flaxmere packing shed in 2011.
She says the pack house was hard work. “You stand for long hours. Sometimes my back [got] sore, because I stand for the whole day.”
Roselyn prefers picking outdoors, despite temperatures that can sometimes reach 36°C.
“I love it!” she says. “Because the same heat I experience here, it’s normal on my island. In the Solomons it’s really hot. For me, I really enjoy working outside.”
For Roseyln, missing her teenage daughters Elizabeth and Margaret - named after the Royal family - is the hardest part of the job. Her daughters were nine and 12 when she first left the Solomons.
“It’s really hard when you stay [away] from your kids since they were small,” she says.
Her younger girl is still at school and the older daughter is about to start university. “I’m here to earn money to paying the school fees, and meet the needs of the whole family,” says Roselyn.
Roselyn’s radiant smile masks a tragic story.
She was working in New Zealand when her husband suddenly passed away from heart problems early last year, leaving her as the sole provider for her extended family.
“I have to work hard now,” says Roselyn, wiping away tears.
As well as educating her daughters and feeding her family, Roselyn’s wages have helped make a significant improvement to village life, by paying for solar panels.
Roselyn explains that solar energy is a very practical source of power in the Solomons. “In our island the sun is very hot.”
“So we came over here to work and buy some solars,” she says, “and then we go and install it. Now we use the solar.”
Janet is from Santa Isobel Island, in the outer provinces of the Solomon’s archipelago. She is the eldest child of four and her parents still live there.
When Cyclone Ita washed away their crops in 2014, Janet’s RSE earnings fed her family and rebuilt their home.
“The work here is important. We send money back home to help our families because on the island they are short of food.”
Janet’s youngest sibling, a 24-year-old brother, has his university education completely paid for by her.
The RSE scheme
The RSE scheme came into effect in April 2007 and allows horticulture and viticulture industries to recruit workers from overseas for seasonal work when there are not enough New Zealand workers. That’s a work force of up to 11,000 temporary migrants from nine Pacific countries.
Pick Hawkes Bay manages 400 RSE workers, 133 of whom are Solomon Islanders. Accommodation is communal, but segregated and comfortable. A spacious hall doubles as a TV room and a church that gets packed out on Sundays.
Anthony Rarere, the general manager of Pick Hawkes Bay, acknowledges that people in the Solomons are desperate for work.
“Unemployment is so high over there. We have people who have jobs over there but still would rather give up their job to come over and work in New Zealand,”
“A lot of my workers spend more time in New Zealand than they do in their own country.” Anthony says.
“They’re probably putting more into the New Zealand economy, you know, in taxes, than some of our New Zealand citizens.”
Empowering women in in the Pacific
While most pickers to date have been men, there are growing numbers of women. This year the work scheme is benefiting 200 women who come from across the Pacific.
“Economic empowerment of women is very important,” says Joy Kere, the High Commissioner for the Solomon Islands in New Zealand. “In terms of where women are placed in our society, [there’s] gender inequity.”
“The fact that they can earn money,” she says, “has given them that leadership role as well, either within their family or the community they come from. It has given them recognition. They feel empowered.”
This story is part two of a three-part Voices series. Check out part one about the threats and intimidation faced by RSE recruiters in the Solomon Islands, and as well as Johnny Blades’ Dateline Pacific story about the Solomon's government taking note of threats to NZ recruiters.
Next week, in part three, Johnny Blades from RNZ Pacific meets men from Vanuatu picking fruit in Marlborough.