More than three percent of Southland’s population is now of Asian descent and more than 2000 of these people are from the Philippines and part of the growing number of workers servicing Southland’s dairy Industry. Hunter Calder talked to one Filipino man who has left his family and friends to travel 8200 kilometres to milk cows so his family will have a better life.
It is 4.30am. It’s pitch black and the cooling breeze can be felt down to the bone. Most people are still fast asleep, tangled in their sheets. But Filipino worker Philip Abrigo is not one of those sleeping beauties. He is a long way from home, in Central Southland on a farm, but he is bright-eyed and eager ready to ride off into the creeping mist to get the cows for a 5am “cups on”.
Abrigo powers the motorbike into life – owl eye headlights light the rough track which he navigates at speed. The crisp, clean air sweeps over, around, and through his body as he skirts the paddock rounding up the cows. One by one they take to their feet and regroup for the morning walk to the shed.
Abrigo takes his right hand off the throttle and yawns.
“The only hard thing is to wake up early,” he said.
An hour before he had been skyping his three children; Micah-Emily, 12, Gia, 10, Sean, 6, and his wife, Millet who were getting ready for bed, at 10.30pm in Los Banos, Laguna, in the Philippines.
Abrigo made the difficult decision to leave his family and move to New Zealand after talking with a friend who was already working on a Southland dairy farm.
He then packed his bags with a one-way ticket to New Zealand, desperate for a better wage.
Abrigo loved his family so much he wanted them to have a better life and his eldest daughter Micah-Emily needed an expensive operation for a cochlear implant because she was born deaf.
The one million pesos ($30,000 NZD) implant has enabled Micah-Emily to hear the birds sing and listen to her father when he calls on Skype. He made the ultimate sacrifice to travel abroad to earn money to pay for his daughter’s life-changing operation.
“Now she’s talking good, she knows how to speak in English, she’s in school.”
Abrigo stepped onto Southland’s fresh soil in August 2009 slipping his hands into a pair of rubber gloves on a farm near Invercargill – with his first job organised through Greener Horizons.
In his first week in Southland he learned the craft of farming dairy cows in New Zealand. He had worked on a buffalo farm in Laguna and it was very different – 120 bulky-horned buffalos were confined to a shed and Abrigo said he was responsible for the animals’ health and well-being when he worked there.
Work was a 10 minute walk from home and he saw his family every day – Abrigo misses the convenience of living and working close to his family even if there had been “too many neighbours”.
Despite similar hours and work-load to his New Zealand job, the pay was poor.
“Every day at 7 o’clock I regularly checked every buffalo in milking lines, checking it (the buffalo) during heat, checking their health, (I was) the one responsible for their food, the water. Making sure they are having enough.”
There was a lot of manual labour for the 12 staff on the buffalo farm. A driver, harvester and others who would, cut collect, source and feed forage and others to do the milking in the shed, but Abrigo only milked sometimes.
In Southland on a farm a short drive from Dipton another row of large-black and white cows walk into the shed and “push up” into their bail for cupping. Abrigo thinks about his children a 10 hour flight away, sitting on the floor in a morning class with another 30-40 wide-eyed students.
The money he earns is helping pay for their “expensive education” and other “extras”.
“I can give them much more than they need, sometimes what they want, sometimes, but we don’t teach our children like that.”
His tattered jacket drapes over his slim waist, splatters of brown dried faeces cover his woollen balaclava that masks his face and neck, his warm, dark, attentive eyes are focused on the cows but his mind is elsewhere.
His three children are growing up fast. He last saw them in 2011 when he went home for two years – the same time Micah-Emily had her cochlear implant.
His youngest, Sean, loves playing with aeroplane toys and wants to be a pilot while Gia wants to be a dentist. Micah-Emily is creative and loves to paint and draw.
“She is very good at painting. She can paint you. She will just look at you and then just paint it. She’s very good.”
Cow after cow the, row after row. Abrigo steps forward as if beginning a waltz. He removes the cups from a cow and places them on another. This pattern is so rehearsed he could do it with his eyes closed. Six hours milking and three more attending to farm duties. Abrigo likes keeping his mind occupied.
“Sometimes I really want to work so you will not think about your loneliness and your family back home.”
Abrigo works in a 40 –a-side herring-bone-shed on a no-exit road; this is the third farm Abrigo has worked on in Southland in five seasons.
Alabama Farm manager James English said it was “word of mouth” and Abrigo’s friendship with his other Filipino staff member, Wendell Wagan, which had supported Abrigo’s application. English said the pair made a great team and worked well together.
As an employer English wanted reliable employees who always turned up on time and Abrigo fitted that description. However, it was important his staff were happy because they were a long way from their home and families.
“I think the biggest thing is just to know that probably at some stage they are expecting to go home again and that they probably will need more than their normal holiday time to go back home for a longer time than two weeks.”
The morning milking is over now and Abrigo is filling the motorbike with oil. His gentle fingers grasp an old drink bottle he is using as a funnel – ingenuity at its finest. The thick, black gunge oozes slowly through the slim sipper nozzle.
His voice lowers and he mentions two farm accidents he had been involved in as “part of the job, part of the work”.
One of the heifers had its head stuck between two rails on a yard gate. As she tried to pull her head out of the solid steel gate it was pulled from the hinges and swung round smashing into Abrigo’s head with great force.
He points to a long scar where he had seven stitches.
As the last of the oil dribbles and disappears into the bike, Abrigo takes to his feet and aims for the store shed. His gumboots kick the loose shingle on the track. The second accident happened when he was riding the motorbike and he fell off landing “wrong” causing a lower back injury.
Despite these setbacks Abrigo had recovered and said he still enjoyed working in New Zealand because it was peaceful and it’s the work that’s helped him financially support his family.
Federated Farmers’ Southland dairy chairperson Allan Baird said Filipino workers were the major migrant cultural group working on Southland farms. He said Filipinos were keen to work and had the dairy experience, skills and animal-health knowledge that employers wanted.
“They’ve got to be able to pick up issues with cow health and be responsive to things that they see.”
Training on the job helped migrant workers adapt to New Zealand’s different dairying model which differed to indoor farming because most dairy cows in Southland graze food direct from the paddock.
“In Southland it’s all about growing grass and managing your pastures so certainly they are new skills they have had to learn,” Baird said.
After a brief break for breakfast Abrigo checks the “springers” for new calves. He reverses the muddy bike into the trailer and puts the “safety pin” in the small hole – a twisted piece of trusty No8 wire does the job for now.
He has taken his balaclava off and you can see his untrimmed beard starting to form. His intense black hair is short, his lips are dry and his eyes are tired. He usually gets six to seven hours sleep every night and this is his seventh day working on an eight-day roster.
He opens his mouth wide and yawns while riding the bike with two hands firmly placed on the frayed handles, the trailer bounces behind.
However, there are no new calves today. Nineteen pregnant cows hover next to the electric fence, standing like impatient children. Abrigo’s rubber boots brush against the luscious green grass as he walks and winds the reel, leaving a trampled path in his wake.
One day Abrigo wants to take his family on a holiday to visit his home away from home but for now they Skype regularly as he plans the future with his wife.
“If this is my last season I’ll try to go get her before I go home so I can show her this is New Zealand. This is where I worked. If I go home I will never come back again and at least she saw where I went.”
But Abrigo is unsure when he will next return home to his beloved family – he has thought about setting up an agricultural supplies business in the Philippines.
But one thing is certain, the dairy industry in Southland has helped him and his family in more ways words can explain.
“I will miss the cows, and of course the work. I will miss the work because it’s the one that’s helped me.”