27 Oct 2015

Filipino dairy workers' struggle in 'paradise'

1:52 pm on 27 October 2015

Enrico Dela Vega has long dreamed of working on a dairy farm in New Zealand.

Fencing equipment on an organic farm in the Manawatu.

Dairy farms in New Zealand are estimated to employ 1700 Filipino workers. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

In college, he took a degree in agriculture with the aim of being able to work here. When that was not enough, he worked for two years in Saudi Arabia on a dairy farm - under what he says were dreadful pay and work conditions - to meet New Zealand's immigration requirements.

Last year, he finally got a work visa and started work in New Zealand. Paradise, he calls it. In May, he moved to the small town of Culverden in Canterbury to start work with a new employer, and thought it would be a straightforward process to renew his visa and get to work.

Enrico Dela Vega, in Culverden, has been waiting over two months for Immigration New Zealand to process his visa variation.

Enrico Dela Vega Photo: RNZ / Rachel Graham

Three months on, he is still waiting to start work and still waiting to be paid. While he waits, so do his wife and children back in the Philippines, who rely on the money he sends them to survive.

He said, at the moment, he literally did not have a single dollar in his pocket.

"To tell you honestly, my life in the Philippines, my family's life in the Philippines... I don't know how they are living right now because I cannot send them money. I don't have any money."

Mr Dela Vega said Immigration New Zealand had not explained why his application had taken so long, though it had recently asked for a copy of some documents which he had already sent.

His assumption is that he has been caught up in a hold placed on new visas by Immigration New Zealand, which is investigating the use of fake documents by Filipino workers.

Last week, the department arrested a dual Filipino and New Zealand national and charged her with offences relating to immigration fraud. She will appear in court in Hamilton today.

Immigration New Zealand has said more arrests are likely. It also said dairy workers who remained with the same employer would not be disadvantaged by any delays in processing applications, as their immigration status would be preserved by grants of interim visas.

However, workers who change employers need changes to their visas - and it is here that some are striking problems.

Waiting and worrying

Mr Dela Vega said he was confident there were no problems with his documents or background, and he just wanted Immigration New Zealand to get on with his application.

He is lucky his new employer has been willing to hold his job for him and his friends in the Filipino community have let him stay at their homes, he said.

But, as he waits, his debts are growing and his family back home is going without. His wife is due to give birth to their third child mid-November and has been told that the baby is a bit on the small side and she should avoid any stress, he said - which is a tough ask at the moment.

This Filipino farm worker In Rakaia has been waiting over three months for his visa to be renewed.

This Filipino farm worker in Rakaia has been waiting over three months for his visa to be renewed. Photo: RNZ / Rachel Graham

In Rakaia, another worker is waiting. A man - whom RNZ will call Andrew, as he asked for his real name not to be used - also has the experience needed to work in New Zealand.

His problem is that it was on a family member's farm, where he worked for seven years before moving to New Zealand. It was an informal arrangement, he said, in which he was given accommodation, food and health care in return for his work.

Andrew is now being asked for documents, such as tax and wage information, to prove he did work on the farm - documents which he is unable to produce.

He is also waiting for Immigration New Zealand to make a decision, and said he just wanted to know if he could stay or not. He said each time he spoke to his wife, she asked if there was progress. Clutching his head, he told RNZ that he just says "don't ask, don't ask".

The situation for one young worker in Ashburton is far more complicated.

John, whose real name RNZ has also agreed not to use, does have fake documents. He said he was working in the Philippines when he met a man heading to New Zealand to work on a farm.

The man told him about the great opportunities here - which he saw as a chance to earn some good money, and create a better future for his family. He was about to have his first child and wanted to be able to get enough money for a house and the child's education.

Andrew was put in touch with a recruiter who said, as long as he paid a fee of about 400,000 pesos (about $12,600), the recruiter would take care of the necessary documents.

John has completed a two-month course in agriculture, and two months' work experience on a farm, but not the two years of farm work required under New Zealand law.

Despite this, John's first New Zealand employer was pleased with his work, and promoted him to assistant farm manager. When he decided to leave that farm, the farm owner asked him if he had a family member who could take over from him because he was so impressed with his work.

John said he was proud that, because of his work, the farmer was now happy to take on other Filipinos and viewed them as good workers.

But now he also faced a delay in getting his visa renewed and, unlike the others, he was not at all confident that it would turn out OK.

As he spoke to RNZ, his legs and hands shook and he laughed - but it was the nervous laughter of a man who was scared he might cry.

He said he took a gamble, brought his wife here and envisioned a new life with his children living here with them. Now, he fears he could be deported at any time.

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