Embracing Vanuatu’s Bislama Abroad: The Challenges of Being a Recognized Seasonal Employer (RSE) Scheme Worker in a Pandemic

As I stood for the second time in front of a Judge in the Alexandra Court in Central Otago, New Zealand, I became critical with my thoughts.

Alexandra District Court in Central Otago, New Zealand 🇳🇿

I have been away from Vanuatu for more than 20 years and whilst being based overseas, one of my priorities of giving back to Vanuatu was always to help any Ni-Vanuatu requiring my Bislama services, knowledge and expertise abroad. The thought of staying neutral, positive but yet critical and constructive as a translator was always a priority. I had to quickly develop a trusting relationship with the client. Understanding his background and context was crucial to this case before the Judge today. My only unshameful thought was “how could you be so stupid and do this, to bring shame to yourself, your family and your country?!”

A booming industry thats for sure in New Zealand 🇳🇿.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a particularly difficult one for our Vanuatu RSE workers contributing to the New Zealand Horticultural and Vinicultural Industry. Since the scheme started in 2007, there has been a lot of successful stories from it. The mutual benefits observed in both countries are wide and exponential. These benefits include a booming harvest industry, a specialized knowledge of starting businesses, and management of finances and trade. One of the many benefits has been the connections of human emotions through the wonderful friendships and social connections made within the cultural integration and exchanges. Being away from families for extended periods of time has been extremely impactful for a lot of us Ni-Vanuatu workers. I understand and realize the mental impacts that are often at times detrimental to the health of our workers abroad. I often think of the Filipino workers working onboard vessels in the oceans and are away from home in a pandemic for more than 7 months without stepping on dry land. My exposure to these workers were at Port Otago in Dunedin where I am a frontline worker when the international vessels berth. It must be so challenging.

Mental health is a huge issue for New Zealand. There is still a lot of services and resources that the government needs to prioritize. As I listened to our lawyer providing the background information on the unlawful incident that happened a month ago, I empathized with our Ni-Vanuatu worker standing before the courts. To discover and know that you have been separated from your own family at home must be unbearable and devastating to hear. To know that your partner had bore the child of another man while you’re away must be so agonizing and painful to hear. Of course it will create instant reactions. These reactions are often negative. But there are ways to deal with these negative reactions safely and healthily with our support groups and peers. We all must find healthy ways to vent our frustrations and emotions.

There are healthy ways to vent our frustrations and anger.

For a lot of our Ni-Vanuatu workers, it is up to their employers to have these essential resources in place to help them out. It is always heart-warming to hear that there have been strategies applied to help deal with the compounding effects of being away from home. A fantastic resource highlighted to me from the employer before standing in front of a judge was the installment of NZ pastoral care workers who offer psychological support regularly to our workers. This support includes checking in once or twice a week with the Ni-Vanuatu workers and trying to understand their needs despite the language barriers. The Ni-Vanuatu workers have a chief in their cohort who overlooks the small community of workers. This is vital as it ensures that our Vanuatu customs, traditional respect and the social connections are still maintained. In addition these groups play a huge role in minimizing separation anxiety for individual workers offering “special group therapy.”

Special Group Therapy are always highly recommended.

The arohanui (Te reo word for big love, much love) I felt after the court case was insurmountable. The support workers who were part of supporting our Ni-Vanuatu worker in the court room today spoke volumes to me. It wasn’t just about the character references that were provided to the Judge. It showed how much value they had brought to their employer and the community they were part of in Alexandra, Cromwell and Roxburgh in Central Otago. I was touched. As I listened to a support worker praising a Ni-Vanuatu worker in Central Otago, I was alarmed learning a statistical ratio. There is one Ni-Vanuatu to seven kiwis for the job they do in the industry. It meant that one Ni-Vanuatu worker doing the job is equivalent to seven kiwis doing the actual job in reality. That was how hard our Ni-Vanuatu workers worked in the industry. The support worker wasn’t alone with praising our Ni-Vanuatu workers. In the health sector where I worked, my patients who came from Central Otago had the same response of praise for these workers.

A mural dedicated to our Pacific workers who are part of the RSE scheme in Central Roxburgh, Central Otago.

I became emotional. Emotional because I knew how hard my people worked. They are my family, my people. I will support them in any way, shape or form I can. They have become such valuable asset to the population of Central Otago but also to New Zealand and Vanuatu as a whole. They have established strong and powerful bonds; bonds that have been deeply personal and engrained in the support workers and their families too. As I reflect on the challenges of supporting one of my own people before the law of another country to be penalized but also to ensure justice is served, I am reassured that there are support systems in place to fully support their integration into a foreign culture too. My personal recommendation for the future is to invest in academic research. This research should center on how we can best support these Ni-Vanuatu workers to handle negative family news in a foreign country to prevent committing offences.

Further research should be invested into how to handle bad news for foreign workers.

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