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Air Vanuatu collapse poses challenges for returning RSE workers

Samantha Gee, Nelson Marlborough / Te Tauihu reporter

Employers are facing numerous challenges as they try to book flights for Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers from Vanuatu - after the collapse of the country's airline.

Air Vanuatu went into voluntary liquidation last week, grounding all flights and leaving 1458 workers stranded in New Zealand with visas soon to expire.

A report from liquidators EY has revealed the dire extent of Air Vanuatu's demise - the airline owes at least US$65 million (NZ$106m), with government loans totalling almost US$21m. It has left about 4000 people with tickets for flights they have been unable to take.

In addition, New Zealand Ethical Employers chief executive Tanya Pouwhare said at the end of last year, it became clear there were delays with issuing new passports, or reissuing passports to those whose had expired in Vanuatu.

"Because there was high number of returnee RSE workers wanting to come back to help out with horticulture and viticulture, the workaround that was agreed to by New Zealand and Vanuatu was a system that for those with passports that had expired, a Certificate of Identity (COI) was issued and that was acceptable on Air Vanuatu and by NZ Customs to allow entry into New Zealand."

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Those who had not held a passport before had to have a biometrics assessment before a certificate could be issued.

"That seemed to be working fine and it was okay until the liquidation of Air Vanuatu occurred and those flights stopped."

There are only three other airline carriers who fly between New Zealand and Vanuatu (Fiji Airways, Air Calin and Solomon Airlines).

Pouwhare said some of the Fiji Airways flights to Vanuatu had an overnight stop in Fiji, where a Certificate of Identity was not accepted. There were no cases of Ni-Vanuatu RSE workers being stranded in Fiji as flights could not be booked without a passport number.

"It is just another step and another issue with trying to get these Vanuatu workers home to their families."

Flights through New Caledonia were not an option while the Nouméa-La Tontouta international airport was closed to commercial flights due to civil unrest.

As soon as flights to Vanuatu became available, seats were being booked.

'Employers will do what they have to'

In the meantime, employers were continuing to look after RSE workers, ensuring they had food, accommodation and work if possible.

"RSE employers do all pull together and making sure the workers are happy, safe, warm and accommodated is the top priority - so while it's an issue the employers will do what they have to, as we have done throughout the last several years of hiccups."

Immigration NZ has extended some visas that were due to expire this week by a month, to allow the workers time to get home.

In Central Otago, Viticultura Contracting owner Jason Thomson said he had about 20 RSE workers who were due to return to Vanuatu at the end of the month, before another lot arrived in June.

"Currently it's not a major problem but if this drags out for a couple of months then we will get a situation where we have too many guys here and we start to run out of work."

That was already the case for some employers, who had more staff than they needed. Thomson said if it continued, employers would be asking Immigration NZ if workers could move to other regions where there was work.

Thomson said some workers were able to return home via Fiji, while he and another Central Otago RSE employer were exploring options to charter flights to Vanuatu with Air New Zealand, which they had done previously, particularly in the early days of the RSE scheme.

By 9 June, there would be 1500 Ni-Vanuatu needing to leave the country, he said.

"They've all been here for seven months, they've made their money and the hardest part is they have [to] mentally prepared themselves to go home, they were looking forward to seeing their kids and their families and now without warning it is, 'no, sorry, you have to stay here'."

This was the busiest time of year for workers to come and go from Vanuatu - between summer and winter, after harvest and before the pruning season, Thomson said.

Central Otago was the most affected, as about 90 percent of its RSE workers were from Vanuatu, while in other regions Marlborough it was about 10 percent, he said.

"If it becomes a long-term problem then Central Otago is going to have to look at a solution going forward, because it highlights how dependent the region is on Vanuatu, it's not spread across all the RSE countries."

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