I had met Ambata in 2013, but had never had any conversations with him, other than passing the time of day. Because of his status within the group that are associated with Epi Island, I thought it was important to get his perspective as to how the RSE scheme measured up for him. What an intelligent and thoughtful person. I thoroughly enjoyed spending some time with Ambata and I know that his experience and understanding benefits many of his fellow Epi islanders (and others too).
Ambata is 39 years old, married with a 9 year old son and 11 year old daughter. The family live in Lamen Bay on the island of Epi – a long journey on a ship from the capital, Port Vila.
Ambata is in his 5th season of working in the New Zealand horticulture industry. Already, Ambata is keen to return to New Zealand for a further season, so he can save enough money to finish building his house. With only the roof to be put on, he’s almost finished. It is a large house by Vanuatu standards – 4 bedrooms so there is plenty of room for extended family to stay. In Lamen Bay there is very little opportunity to make money so coming to New Zealand is a good chance to achieve the goal of building a strong home. Of course Ambata uses savings for his children’s and wider family’s education fees. He spends more time in New Zealand every year now, than he does in Vanuatu and is accustomed to many of the ways of New Zealand’s lifestyle.
What is your usual day like on Epi Island?
Most days in Lamen Bay, Ambata goes to the garden, to grow and harvest the family’s food. His plantation is located about 1.5km away from his home, and with no means of transport, walking to and from the garden is required. The other days there is much resting and simply talking to others.
How did you find out about the RSE scheme?
There is a strong link between New Zealand and the support given to his home island, Epi. A Trust had built the hospital on the island, so there were connections within the island.
As a regular RSE worker, do you have any extra responsibilities?
Each house where the RSE workers are living, has a leader. The leaders are responsible for the new ni Vanuatu arriving in New Zealand for the first time. For the new workers, everything is so different, so it is important that those who have been here before show other things like, shopping and what sort of foods are available, eftpos machines and how to do the work. Ambata is the overall leader for his people and so needs to make sure that everything runs smoothly between the RSE workers and the employers. Because Ambata is a regular in the RSE scheme he has been trained as a supervisor and has trained many staff including workers not in the RSE scheme.
Do you meet in Port Vila with the other RSE workers before coming to New Zealand?
Initially, those interested apply to a local agent to see if they would be eligible to come to New Zealand – there are many papers to complete. When selected, before leaving Vanuatu, there is briefing for everyone where all things are discussed about the RSE arrangement, including health, hygiene, working regulations and labour laws.
How do you manage being away from your family?
Ambata has in the past, had other jobs within Vanuatu that have meant he has had to leave his family on the island, so he can attend to his work commitments. He feels that the sacrifice that the family makes is all worthwhile because the benefit will be for his children, with them receiving good education.
Do you notice anything significantly different about life in New Zealand?
Time is very important in New Zealand. We have to do everything to a time here. In Vanuatu the actual time is not important. We can sit and talk all day long if we want to. (Something I noticed on my first journey to Vanuatu was that the ni-Vanuatu would refer to “white-man time” and “black-man time”. Initially I was a little shocked at that reference, but discovered, that those terms are not spoken with malice or unkindness, it is simply the vocabulary that is in common use, and no one takes offence).
What is the best thing about being in New Zealand?
Ambata notices that it is easy to get good medicine at the pharmacy, (there are no pharmacies as such on Epi; there is one small island hospital). There are good water supplies, and there is easy access to food. The infrastructure that is usual in New Zealand is not mirrored on his island. People still live a traditional way, living off the land and sea.
The worst thing about coming to New Zealand?
Ambata seems a very positive person. In response to that question, he says “in life, there are always positives and negatives”. (A pleasant approach I feel).
What sort of support do you get in New Zealand?
Because Ambata has been here so many times, and he now spends more of the year in New Zealand than he does in Vanuatu, he has developed links into the community around him. There are the churches that support the RSE workers and Ambata has friendships with some local families. He mentions the same family that others have mentioned, Val and Trevor, he tells me, they are like my family in New Zealand.
Ambata is really happy to have opportunity to come to New Zealand. He sees the RSE scheme as a great system. He uses terminology common in New Zealand – he says “it’s a win- win situation for orchardists and workers” Ambata has observed over the years how the company he works for has grown, and sees that as a positive thing. He believes it would be a good thing for the RSE scheme to increase so more orchardists come on board to help everyone. The continuity of staff that return every year is of great benefit to the employers.
(I really like this photo of Ambata – so typical ni-Vanuatu – that broad hearty smile that is ready to erupt into laughter).