I-Kiribati seasonal workers in New Zealand: real life experiences
As reported in our first blog post, 286 I-Kiribati workers, including 97 women, have been in New Zealand since the border was closed early last year, with no way to return home. This blog continues to tell the stories of 47 women from I-Kiribati.
The way the Recognized Seasonal Employer (RSE) program works requires team members to spend most of the day working and living nearby. For all three groups of women, living together for more than 18 months led to personality conflicts and disagreements over activities and behavior at work and in her free time; sometimes defying group solidarity. Uncertainty about the future of seasonal work, anxieties over family issues in Kiribati and the lack of any clear time horizon for their stay in New Zealand, which has been compounded by the recent Community outbreak of COVID-19, have contributed to these tensions.
Coping with prolonged periods away from their partners is difficult for the women and men of I-Kiribati. The incidence of STIs among workers in I-Kiribati has increased according to a pastoral worker who devotes a lot of time to safe sex education. There have been six reported pregnancies among the group of 47 women and, to date, five of the I-Kiribati women have given birth in New Zealand.
In previous years, if a CSR woman found out that she was pregnant, she would be supported to return home to give birth. This was not possible for the women of I-Kiribati. CSR workers are not eligible for free access to New Zealand’s public health system, and CSR health insurance, which is mandatory, does not cover pregnancy and childbirth costs. The costs, which start at NZ $ 9,000, are borne directly by the worker.
Childbirth outside the home was one of the most complex welfare issues to deal with and required significant collaboration between I-Kiribati mothers, CSRs who arranged paid maternity leave through aid government and ongoing pastoral care, and members of the Kiribati I-Community in Auckland who have taken in new mothers and continue to offer support.
For the women of I-Kiribati, in addition to nurturing relationships with team members and others in New Zealand, they also nurture relationships with family members at home. For some, this includes young children who are left with partners and extended family while the women are away. Women miss important family events – celebrations, bereavements – and, for 43 of the women with children, they may miss rites of passage for children at different stages of life (especially church-related events and at school). The husbands of two of the women died while in New Zealand. A husband was the primary caregiver for their children, which necessitated new childcare arrangements in place, while dealing with unexpected bereavement.
Some women run small businesses in southern Tarawa and these are also run by others in their absence. For those family members back home, who have been responsible for the care of dependents and / or business operations for much longer than expected, this has placed an additional burden on them.
All of the I-Kiribati women we interviewed in New Zealand, except two who have recently given birth, regularly send remittances to families. For some, prolonged seasonal work and the associated remittances have caused the family to lobby for the women to stay rather than try to return home. This creates tension for women who are physically and mentally exhausted and missed by their families, but who also know that their unexpected stay gives them the opportunity to earn money at levels they will never reach. Kiribati where most of them do not have regular opportunities to earn money. .
Not all the women of I-Kiribati want to leave; some wish to stay as long as possible. But there is a growing consensus – among CSRs, New Zealand government officials, Pacific liaison officers, as well as members of diaspora communities – that I-Kiribati CSR workers must be given the opportunity to return to their country. their family.
The women and their employers, supported by members of the I-Kiribati resident community, have shown incredible resilience and adaptability over the past 18 months in the face of difficult and often changing circumstances, including the current situation. nationwide containment due to COVID-19. These experiences have, in turn, strengthened the employer-worker relations which are at the heart of the CSR system. But the CSR system is not designed to keep workers indefinitely. Negotiating a viable return path for I-Kiribati CSR workers must become a priority for the governments of New Zealand and Kiribati once the COVID-19 outbreak in New Zealand is eliminated. How to go about it, we discuss in a companion blog.
This is the second blog in a series on # I-Kiribati women workers in New Zealand.
This research was undertaken with the support of the Pacific Research Program, funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Opinions are those of the authors only.