Posted by: cousindampier | 14 May 2011

Blue-Collar Work in the land of the Long White Cloud

“I’ll work on an orchard,” I thought before I left.  “Do some outside work.  It’ll be nice.”

Last Sunday was likely my last day picking kiwifruit.  I hope.  I’m not moving to anything real sexy – I found a job in a packhouse, which is just steadier than picking.  Over the past week, I have worked two days.  The rain prevents work.

Not that I really mind.  I want to work – I need the money.  But waking up to the rain was a wonderful feeling.  The sound of it hitting the roof outside, the smell, and the rush of joy flowing through my body as I realized I did not have to suffer through a day of picking made for another pleasant hour of sleep.  Or the moments on potentially rainy days, when the sky was gray and dark, and I’d get the ‘no work today text.’

The packhouse is probably no better.  I am certain it is monotonous and boring and I’ll have to bend over a table for ten or eleven hours a day.

Picking kiwifruit, however, was an experience I do not want to go back to.  Kiwifruit is grown on vines, which are stretched overhead, hanging from studs nailed to logs stuck into the ground.  The orchard is divided into square cells, each one about eight feet across and ten feet deep and – this is key – only six feet high.

So, for a person more than six feet tall, picking kiwi involves a lot of crouching, bending over or bending backwards; hitting the forehead on tree limbs or wires, which are used to ‘guide’ the kiwi vines.  My hat falls off often, and I get facefulls of kiwi dust and dead leaves, and I learned quickly to push my head up into seemingly small clearings.

Standing straight is a luxury.

It is hard, dirty work.  Sometimes the studs have collapsed, broken in two; then I am on my knees, reaching for the kiwis above me.  The bosses expect speed, because you are paid by the hour.  I once asked a guy who picked last year as well if he got a lot stronger from picking.

“No, not really.  I can just do it for longer.”

You just develop endurance, or the ability to work with numb shoulders.

Another interesting aspect of seasonal work, both picking kiwifruit and working at Franz Josef, is the lack of any actual Kiwis.  Kiwis, in this sense, are the people of New Zealand.  This is an important distinction to make – kiwifruit is the food, Kiwis are people.

Try mixing these two phrases up in any conversation with someone from New Zealand.  It makes for a questioning look.

I left home under the impression I would meet a lot of New Zealanders.  I thought I’d really get to know the country well.  But I’ve hardly met any.  My boss at Franz, Phillip, was Kiwi, as well as the Human Resources Coordinator, Rosie.  Both were two of the nicest and interesting people I’ve met.

Beyond that, hardly any.  Partially, this is due to the lack of stability.  Not staying in one place for longer than a few days means making local connections just does not happen.

But this is also partially because few Kiwis want to pick kiwifruit.

Any bemoaning aside, I have met many internationals.  I live with two Scots, a Brit, a German, three French, four Chileans, and a lot of Argentinians.  In the orchards, I worked with many Nepalese, including the contractor who employed me, Sajesh.  There were a good number of Indians from the Punjab as well, which made for interesting discussions, as Punjabis claim part of Pakistan as their land.

Like any labourer in any country, there is a stigma which is attached to the orchard workers.  The Nepalese are generally regarded as really hard workers and good people.  Honest, many people said about them.  The Indians are viewed with more suspicion.  The stories of them are they will try to cheat you, or skim off the edges.  The Maori are viewed in a mixed light.  Most people had little to say – not out of any negative perception, just that the Maori were simply other Kiwis.

But a few people needed no prompting to begin ranting.  The Maori do nothing.  They just wait for their benefit to come through (the benefit is unemployment in the USA).  There are all these jobs, but they refuse to take them.

On the other hand, the Maori I have met are some of the hardest working and hardest partying people.

Aussies, as well, are viewed in a mixed light.  Most Kiwis have said that Australia itself is nice, but horribly expensive.  The minimum wage there is something around $18 per hour, but the cost of living is significantly higher, and the Australian dollar is much stronger than the Kiwi dollar.

The few Australians I have met in New Zealand have all seemed stuck up.  Here because their dollar is strong.  Doing a little work to save just a little extra, to travel for three months after.

To paraphrase Lewis Black: because, even with the plane ticket, it is cheaper than drinking in Australia.

T and I, in at least five cases, are the first Americans someone has met.  I have met hardly any other Americans working as seasonal workers, none picking fruit or in the packhouse.  I have been the first American that, I think, all of the Chileans I’ve met.

**

A few people have said to me, when I’ve written long diatribes bemoaning how awful the work is, “at least you are working in New Zealand!”

But the reality is a lot different than, “I get to work in another country.  Cool!”  Work is…simply work.  Being in another country doesn’t make it any better.  Working with so many international people is fun, and often interesting, but the farmland outside my window is still green, with rolling hills in the distance.  Cows still moo the same.  People still drink enormous quantities of beer to get over their day at work.

Most of what makes it different is negative.  The internet, in general, is much slower in the country.  The nice thing about the 90’s tech bubble in America was the amount of cable laid, so much of the country is connected via broadband.  Here, this doesn’t hold true.  Outside of cities, few homes seem to have reliable, fast internet.

The facilities, of where I am at the moment, consist of a ranch house with no insulation, a fireplace for heating, one shower for 20 people with bad water pressure and unreliable temperature, a washer which only works on cold and no dryer, and dial-up.

Even more so than living in Spokane, to get around New Zealand, one needs a car.  Buses do run regularly from most places on the islands – the country is small enough to allow the drivers to pull over when someone waves them down – but the buses are prohibitively expensive to take regularly.

**

Having said all this, I am sitting outside on a large deck, on a Saturday afternoon, writing.  It is the first sunny day in almost a week.  There are burgers on the barbecue, and I am drinking tea.

The water is more crisp.

The air is more clean.

And yeah, I am in New Zealand.

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