The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, March 13, 2007



The great green, greasy machine trundled slowly through the field, slashing the leaves off the vegetables, tearing them clear from the vines. Behind the cutter bar and the whirling battens, and just in front of the tractor wheels tramp a row of workers.

Their job is to pick up the squash and lob them onto a conveyor belt. This rolls the vegetables up a ramp and into big wooden bins. Two forklifts scurry around the paddock gathering the full bins and loading them on a truck.

The work is non-stop, intensive and exhausting. Most passers-by wouldn't give the scene a second glance, for this is modern, mechanized New Zealand agriculture.

Except that the workers are Indonesians.

All have come from Tulungagung in central East Java. They're part of a scheme to use Indonesian laborers on short-term contracts to keep NZ horticulture in business.

For the farms are flourishing, the crops are heavy and the export demand for NZ produce is expanding. Just one problem – not enough labor.

Four years ago Trish Dooney, a businesswoman in Hawkes Bay on the east coast of NZ's North Island together with her Indonesian husband Igun, brought some of his extended family to NZ on work visas.

Till recently NZ and Australia have kept their doors slammed shut against overseas workers. Indonesian maids and construction hands could travel overseas north and east as part of the Tenaga Kerja Indonesia (TKI - Indonesian labor force) – but not south.

Powerful Western labor unions feared locals would lose jobs to foreigners and that wages and employment standards would tumble. But the acute demand for workers in the booming economies Down Under has forced a rethink.

The Indonesians who came with Dooney and Igun adapted quickly and caught the attention of local growers. With the help of the NZ embassy in Jakarta the couple brought in a few more relatives. This year the number has jumped to 155 and a little family initiative has become big business.

Igun is now employed by a major horticulturalist as recruiter and organizer of Indonesian labor. Other companies are clamoring for workers, but the selection and visa procedures are prolonged, so they won't get staff in time for this year's apple harvest.

"So far it has worked brilliantly," said Dooney who imports Indonesian artifacts for a shop she runs with her sister Lyn Mitchell. The two women buy directly from villages in Bali and Java, and commission work to their own designs.

"The men suffer from the cold, but adapt. Most reckon NZ is amazing. They also get on well with the Maori (the original inhabitants of NZ).

"When it was just family members we were able to cook and care for the men. Now the program is big, and could get bigger. It could swell to thousands. The growers are desperate.

"However the NZ government plans to change the regulations this year, and they may favor Pacific Islanders rather than workers from other countries.

"The selection process in Java must be done carefully. Indonesians are excellent workers. They don't complain. They've had some culture shocks but they've coped. But the scheme could come apart if any abscond."

NZ has a serious problem with visa overstayers from many countries. They arrive as three-month tourists, find work and friends, rip up their return tickets and disappear into the community.

That hasn't happened yet with the Indonesian farm laborers because they are continually warned that one defection could close the door to future workers.

At a furnished suburban house Husnul Waladi, 28, lives with 30 young single men, steaming Thai rice, micro-waving lamb chops and acting as a go-between with the bosses. He plans to marry and start an English school back in Java when his 6 month work visa expires in June using the NZ $4,000 or 5,000 he hopes to have saved.

He'd prefer to return to NZ and eventually get permanent residency. He's already bought a car and a laptop – but realistically reckons becoming a Kiwi is a dream too far, for he's already homesick. And starting to ask questions about Indonesia.

"The bosses treat us fairly and we're not being exploited," he told The Jakarta Post. "Everything is well organized. There's no inequality here – why should there be in our homeland? There's nothing to hope for in Indonesia – why?

"Put this in your headline so SBY (the Indonesian President) knows: 'Why don't we have equality in Indonesia?'

"The other hardship is the fiscal (Indonesian departure tax of Rp 1 million per person). Why should we pay this on top of passport and visa charges and airline tickets?"

The men have to repay airfares of NZ $1,700 advanced by their employer and are taxed about 22 per cent on their earnings. If they don't work a full year they get a tax refund. Accidents at work are covered by insurance.

The minimum wage rate is NZ $11.50 an hour, but rates vary according to the crop. The men work in gangs and the Indonesians stick together.

They pay NZ $70 a week for accommodation and use of vehicles. They spend about NS $15 each a week on groceries.

"Indonesians who come here should understand English," said Waladi who has made a video of his NZ experiences to show potential applicants in his hometown.

"You have to work hard, maybe 7 am to 5 pm or later six days a week. I've never worked so hard before in Indonesia. We don't stop on Fridays for prayers – but that's no problem. (Some workers are Hindu and one is a Christian. Most are Muslim.)

"You must also be disciplined and obedient. We're paid the same as NZ workers. We haven't had any problems or experienced racism – everyone is very friendly. We try to do our best.

"The things you hear about Westerners being wicked, pornographic and arrogant aren't true. Those stories are spread by people who've never been abroad – they're just like frogs trapped in a coconut shell."

Said Dooney: "This is a win-win situation for Indonesia and NZ. It's changing people's lives. We're in this together. They've helped us enormously and we're helping them. I just hope no-one gets greedy."

(First published in The Jakarta Post 12 March 07)

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