Working in 'tropical' Warkworth just like home

14 June 2024

In Warkworth, some 4500km south of the equator, one of the town’s largest employers offers a work environment best described as tropical and that’s just the way the majority of staff like it.

“We employ approximately 120 permanent staff of which approximately 70 are from Kiribati, along with 64 RSE (Recognised Seasonal Employer) workers from Kiribati and four from Tuvalu. The heat and humidity of the glasshouses is just like home for them,” says Sheryl Lewis, HR manager for Southern Paprika Ltd (SPL).

“Our Kiribati and Tuvalu staff are an important part of our team, particularly when it comes to picking our capsicum and snack cucumber crops and pruning and twisting our plants. While the cold weather outside the glasshouse can be a shock when RSE workers first arrive, inside is just like home so they enjoy the work environment.”

The tropical conditions, however, are not so popular with Kiwi workers. “We can’t find enough Kiwis to do the work. Although employing RSE workers is expensive for SPL it is worth the investment. We wouldn’t have expanded our business as we have without the reliable labour RSE provides.

“Thanks to the scheme we know we will have the number of people we need and that they will stay the whole season, take their roles seriously and add a lot of value to the business. In our experience, we generally don’t get that reliability from Kiwi workers.”

SPL’s 86ha site, 60 minutes north of Auckland, has five glasshouse complexes totalling 27ha, including 26ha at the Warkworth site and the original 1ha structure at Point Wells. At any one time the glasshouses have one million plants, producing up to six million kilograms of capsicums a year. It’s annual wage bill alone stretches well into the millions.

The company’s longstanding relationship with Kiribati and Tuvalu began around 25 years ago when the original glasshouse manager brought with him workers from the islands.

“Over the years that relationship has grown and many of our staff are now permanent residents in Warkworth.”

SPL clearly values what its I-Kiribati and Tuvaluan staff bring to the business and it’s obvious the feelings are reciprocated by those who have chosen to settle permanently in New Zealand, as well as those who return year after year under the RSE scheme.

“We have three I-Kiribati RSE workers, who are our longest serving, currently doing their fifteenth season.”

Part of the appeal may be the work atmosphere. “It’s lovely to walk into a glasshouse where music is playing and the workers are singing, laughing and joking. It’s such a happy place.”

Adding to the feeling of a ‘home away from home’ is the fact that SPL’s permanent staff from Kiribati and Tuvalu refer friends and family for RSE positions and assist with providing pastural care and language translation in the community. “At work our permanent staff support new team members with training and translation as required.”

Because of the distances they travel to work in New Zealand, RSE workers from Tuvalu and Kiribati are able to stay for nine months each year – two-months longer than RSE workers from other countries. This fits well with SPL’s peak season and the pullout and replant process.

“That’s a long time to be away from home. During the Covid pandemic many were stuck here for two and a half years without seeing their families as even after the New Zealand borders opened, the Kiribati border was still shut. It was really tough for our workers.”

Sheryl says it’s hard to fully appreciate the sacrifices I-Kiribati are willing to make by joining the RSE scheme. 

“As unemployment is very high in Kiribati, the RSE labour mobility scheme is very important to their nation. Often our RSE are not only providing for wives and children, they’re also supporting extended family including parents, brothers, and sisters.

“Money remittances from RSE back home are vital to their economy. We view our scheme as a win, win, win. It’s great for SPL because we get the committed workers which we cannot access in New Zealand. It’s great for RSE as they can better support their families when it is difficult to get meaningful employment in the islands. It’s also great for our permanent staff having family members here for nine months.”

Each year SPL helps organise shipping containers which are filled with equipment and supplies to send home. “We schedule the arrival of the containers to coincide with the RSE workers’ return so they can unload them. It’s like Christmas all over again.”

In the containers are building materials, sewing machines, outboard motors, power tools, clothing, kitchen tools, televisions and much more.

“Some of the workers set up small businesses for themselves or family members to run while they are away. There are instances where wives have started shops and sewing businesses. One man has established an open-air, mobile cinema, with seating, a large screen and projection equipment while another has a petrol station. Other businesses include boat hire, using outboards sent back from New Zealand.”

While the money earned from working at SPL is helping enrich the island nations’ communities, the RSE workers are also contributing to the economy and enriching the culture of Warkworth and Rodney district.

“Our permanent staff have become ensconced in the local community, and several have firmly put down their roots, purchasing their own homes here.

“There are Pasifika groups at the local primary school and college and festivals are held regularly. There is a strong connection with the local Presbyterian Church which has grown and now has social workers involved with the Kiribati community.”

Sheryl admires what both RSE and permanent SPL staff have been able to achieve. “Many use the money from their first season working here to build the first level of a new home, and the second season’s earning to build the next level.

“I’ve been to Kiribati once and would love to return. It’s pretty remote and very humbling to see where people live and in particular seeing where our permanent staff started and compare that with what they have achieved. It’s not been easy for them to go through the Pacific Access Category ballot process and then work and save hard to own their own homes.”

Managing the employment programme for RSE workers requires a significant commitment from SPL, including additional costs associated with being part of the scheme.

“We are required to pay a higher hourly rate to RSE staff and there is a lot of pastoral care which includes coordinating support with literacy, budgeting advice, health clinics, facilitating shipping containers, assistance with staff savings through our relationship with ANZ, training opportunities and much more.

“The RSE scheme is vital to our country and vital to Pacific nations.  Without it I don’t think horticulture in New Zealand would be able to achieve the growth it has. If the programme is secured into the future, I believe even more investment will come into horticulture.”