Phuong Nguyen – Feeling at home with Sealord in Nelson
Phuong Nguyen is a multi-skilled processor in the Coated Factory. When she first started in Sealord’s Wetfish Factory about 20 years ago, she could only say ‘Thank you’ and ‘Hello’ in English. Today, she is grateful to Sealord for giving her the chance to work, which has led to many other opportunities, including buying her own home.
Phuong first travelled to New Zealand from Vietnam in December 2001 for a holiday to visit her friend from her home town of My Tho, a ‘beautiful place a bit like Nelson’. Back in Vietnam, she used to play badminton and loved to swim. Her family owned a small factory employing about 30 people, making and selling lollies, and she worked in the shop. Phuong arrived in Nelson on her own and planned to stay six months but quickly realised it would be a wonderful place to live because the people were very friendly.
Her friend sponsored her to stay and she got a job at Sealord during hoki season. Phuong was amazed when she saw the size of the factory and how clean and tidy it was.
‘Everyone was very happy, I was very happy, and the supervisor showed me what to do and I just followed,’ says Phuong. ‘They always helped me if I needed it. That’s still how I feel even now!’
Phuong’s first job involved cutting the head bone off the fish but then she learnt how to remove the fat line. She worked on the afternoon shift and her friend worked on the day shift.
‘At smoko I was the only Vietnamese person so couldn’t really talk to anyone, but the Kiwis always tried to involve me in what they were saying, which was really good.’
Each day, Phuong tried to learn more English. She’d write words on her hand and then at the end of each shift go home and look them up in the dictionary. Today, she is still teaching herself, but she says it’s much easier now with her phone to translate.
For two years after that first hoki season, Phuong worked on a tomato job, then got a job back with Sealord, in the Coated Factory. Her new role involved cutting fish on the kirimi line. There was one other person from Vietnam working the same shift as Phuong, although they were on different lines. After a while, she moved to mussel opening, where she was able to work with other Vietnamese-speaking people.
Phuong says she’s been so lucky to work at Sealord and her family are happy too. Early on, when they expressed concern about her living in New Zealand without speaking English, she said ‘Mum, don’t worry, Sealord are very, very good to me. They give me a job and they’re very, very friendly to me!’ and then they didn’t worry any more.
She has worked in the Coated Factory for the last eight years. ‘I love what I do, packing the boxes of product. It’s very, very good, I’m happy for that! I work on the afternoon shift with other Vietnamese people and my supervisor is very lovely. She understands me very well and is always very, very helpful.’
At the start of the four-week COVID lockdown Phuong felt scared about coming to work but says everything was put in place for employees to feel very safe. ‘Sealord looked out for us all, with temperature checks, screens, masks, hand sanitiser and even meals while we were at work.’
Phuong says she feels supported and safe and the people she works with feel like her family here. Her English has improved so that, when people ask about life in Vietnam, she can tell them.
Before COVID, Phuong returned to Vietnam most years, but she’s hoping her mum will be able to visit her again soon. Her niece also came to live with her for two years while she studied at Garin College and her work at Sealord meant she could help to support her.
‘I’m hoping that one day my mum will make it here to visit me, especially now that just after lockdown I bought my own first little house. I went to the bank for a loan and when they found out I work at Sealord, they very quickly approved my application, within a minute! I feel so happy now when I get home to know it’s my own place. I feel so proud, just like I am to have my job here.’