Becoming the immigrant work force
When I first learned about harvesting jobs in New Zealand it seemed like an ideal, perhaps even romantic, way to earn money. I envisioned long days in the sun picking plump fruit while birds sang the perfect soundtrack. There are days when this happens. I’ve picked grapes surrounded by majestic cliffs or seaside vistas. But let me tell you, the sun doesn’t always shine in New Zealand, and the fruit isn’t always perfect. You also often have to get up well before sunrise, and be prepared to pick during cold, wet days. There are also times when you are paid by how much you pick. Apples, for example, are almost always paid per bin picked, and depending on the quality of the crop, this could take some time. I spent 6 hours picking apples one day and filled one bin, for the whopping total of $26, not even close to minimum wage. You can make good money if you’re fast, but after one day at picking virus ridden apples, I decided to move on. Grapes sounded much more appealing.
Being in the Hawkes Bay at the time, grapes seemed like a pretty good idea. The area is known for its sunny climate and numerous vineyards and wineries. Driving by the vineyards I could see the grapes still on the vines. Someone must have to pick those, right? After asking around at the hostel, I found several people who had done some picking, and I soon had a phone number. A few texts and a phone call later, I had some rudimentary instructions from a mystery man, Rudra, with a thick Indian accent. “Be at Mill Rd. 7:30 tomorrow morning. Don’t be late.”
Four of us from the hostel arrived the next morning and waited, wondering if we were in the right place as we pulled to the side of the road. Eventually a minivan full of workers pulled along side of us, “Are you looking for labor? Good. We wait for one more car.” It wasn’t Rudra, but someone he also contracted with. We followed the minivan and eventually arrived at a vineyard overlooking the ocean. More cars arrived, and out poured Fijians, Indians, Jamaicans, Thai, Chinese, Maori and a few other backpackers. We were definitely in the minority. The next few days were some of the hardest days I’ve worked, for the lowest wage. Cold and wet, hot and sunburned. This is New Zealand, and the weather changes day by day.
It seems contractors tend to focus on employing travelers (us) or the various low-skilled resident labor force. I consider myself fortunate to have worked for the latter, as it has forever opened my eyes. These weren’t people working to pay for sky dives and telling stories about their last drunken hookup at the hostel. They were here because they had to be. Because this is all they could do. Because they had to support their families, either here or abroad. Multiple generations all working together, their sense of community was most obvious during “smoko”, or break time. We watched in amazement as our Indian neighbors pulled out curries, fresh breads and teas. The older women of the group had spent hours preparing home cooked meals for their friends, and then they got up before sunrise to pick grapes all day. It makes one realize how much we take our creature comforts for granted. I was now part of the unseen workforce.
On the last day of picking, while all the other cars hurried home after an early day, the same group sat down again to share a meal before leaving. But this time they asked us to join them. So there we sat, amongst the vines on the slope of a hill overlooking the mountains with our new friends, experiencing one of the best meals I’ve ever had.
New Zealand has a strong agriculture industry, with seasonal work demands soaring during harvest season. In general, the harvest season starts earlier in the north, and continues as you move south. For the eager worker this can allow you to literally pick your way south following the harvest trail. Crops vary from region to region and include avocados, kiwis, apples and grapes for wine making. A good starting point for locating work is www.picknz.co.nz or contact one of the many backpackers that cater to seasonal workers.