Fijians residing here are exempted from transit visas through New Zealand if they wish to return to their home country.
But now some prefer staying in Rarotonga, saying they feel more secured here than in Fiji during this Covid-19 crisis.
A week ago, Prime Minister Henry Puna said some leading employers wanted to release expat workers who wish to return to their home countries.
He told Parliament that government supported this move as it would conserve the “limited resources” it has at its disposal to support Cook Islanders during the Covid-19 crisis.
However, repatriating workers was impossible, as the borders to countries most of these foreign workers come from, were still closed.
Fijian Association vice president Savenaca Tukitoba said they are not aware of any Fijian work permit holders here being made redundant at any of the hotels.
“What we do understand at the moment is that everyone is on a wage subsidy, and we are still safe, secure and are more advantaged than those affected at home,” Tukitoba said.
“I believe the Cook Islands government will decide that if they think we are no longer needed here then definitely will arrange a flight for us.”
But Liana Scott, the vice president of Cook Islands Tourism Industry Council, said if the situation continues, they would have no choice but to let go of their expat workers.
Businesses that have closed as well as those that are remaining open with little to no business, still have ongoing operational costs and ultimately with no clear open date, nor commitment from government to cover wage subsidies, past September businesses need to individually review and formulate strategies that are going to allow them to survive, she said.
Scott pointed out one of these strategies “sadly is likely to be to reduce the workforce, particularly as properties are unlikely to be operating at the normally enjoyed occupancies during these winter months”.
She said it makes sense for the government to look at the repatriation of expat workers.
If businesses do start releasing labour from their payroll, Scott said these individuals will only have two options – find another job which is highly unlikely in this current climate or to be faced with unmanageable circumstances beyond the available redundancy package, which means inability to meet accommodation and living expenses.
“It could well be that a flight is chartered directly from Fiji if there was enough interest, or perhaps via New Zealand if passengers were strictly in transit (given they have come from a Covid-free country) and I believe Fiji and Cook Islands governments should be considering what arrangements could be made.”
This week, the New Zealand High Commission to Cook Islands, confirmed details of transit exemptions for passengers departing from Cook Islands.
It said the changes have been made to the transit requirements for people in the Pacific that need to transit through New Zealand to return to their home country.
In a statement they said for Fijian citizens if their immediate destination after transiting through New Zealand is Fiji, they do not require a transit visa or NZeTA. This is only until September 4.
Alternatively, a visit to the Immigration Customer services Office in the New Zealand High Commission Building (office hours 9am – 3pm) or registering via phone-call to 29 347.
Immigration secretary Tepaeru Herrmann said have for some weeks now they have received requests for return home travel assistance for visitors and migrant workers.
She said the interest has come from migrant workers wishing to return to be with their families as well as migrant employing businesses (predominantly from the tourism sector) who are experiencing significant downturn in business, in some cases business closure.
She said more than 400 work permits have expired over the last 4 months.
However, worldwide border closures have prevented migrant worker return travel, this recent transit flexibility introduced by New Zealand makes possible some return travel and MFAI will in the coming days elevate engagement with migrant worker communities and concerned businesses.
Principal Immigration Officer Kairangi Samuela said “MFAI is acutely aware of the increasing challenges confronting all Cook Islands businesses and residents, including migrant workers, and we will over the next two weeks be engaging closely with our business and migrant worker communities, particularly our sizable communities from Fiji, the Philippines and Indonesia to canvas interest in return to home countries.
“There is a multitude of logistical and welfare issues that need to be worked through and we will proceed with due haste and sensitivity in the coming days.”
This week, the Fijian government also granted special considerations for Fiji citizens, residents and permit holders in Australia and New Zealand to return to Fiji, through a net of safety measures.