Missing home . . . Mark Purugganan holds a photo of sons Abram (2) and Keired (5) at Keired's 5th birthday party in the Philippines earlier this week. PHOTO: ASHLEY SMYTH

Maheno dairy farm manager Mark Purugganan has “lost hope” of being able to be reunited with his family in New Zealand, and is returning to the Philippines.

Mr Purugganan has lived and worked in New Zealand since 2012. He was joined by wife Roxanne a year later, and their two sons, Keired (5) and Abram (2), were born here.

He has helped manage Quambatook, a 900-cow dairy farm at Maheno, with James and Bridget McNally, for three and a-half years.

His children suffer from severe eczema and so their mother took them back to the Philippines to let their skin recover, as it seemed to be better in the warmer and more humid climate.

“The original plan was for me to go home every six months to visit them, until they outgrow their eczema problem, and then we can all come back here together.

“And then the lockdown came.”

Mr Purugganan last saw his family in person in December 2019, when Abram was a 7-month-old baby. He has missed three of Keired’s five birthdays.

He speaks to his wife and children every day, but it was not the same, he said.

A new policy of border exemptions for partners and dependent children of temporary visa holders was the opportunity the family had been waiting for, but Mrs Purugganan’s application for an exemption was declined. Immigration New Zealand was “not satisfied” she had a “critical purpose for travel to New Zealand”.

Other criteria she failed to meet – having no current visa and that she was “not ordinarily resident in New Zealand” – were valid.

“It’s based on the current rules,” Mr Purugganan said. “My wife’s visa was already expired before lockdown.”

Because of lockdown, she had not re-applied for a visa, and now there was a huge backlog of applications.

He would probably have gone home before now, but his wife had wanted the family to eventually settle in New Zealand, and he had been in the process of applying for a resident’s visa. This had also been thwarted with endless delays.

“I’ve lost hope. You can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. You can wait, and you can keep going if you have a goal, but the goal keeps moving.”

Mrs McNally said Mr Purugganan was “very highly skilled” and it would not be easy to fill his position.

“Somebody of Mark’s calibre will most likely come from another dairy farm, so we are just shifting the problem to somebody else,” she said.

Mr Purugganan said during lockdown he was deemed an essential worker and “suddenly we’re not”.

“We were the backbone of the industry .. but we don’t feel valued.”

Mr Purugganan would like to return to New Zealand, once borders opened again.

Federated Farmers employment and irrigation spokesman Chris Lewis said there was a “fairly critical skill shortage” across the board in the primary industries, especially in the South.

An application to the Government for 500 mid-skilled dairy farm workers to be allowed into the country under a special exemption had been declined, but Federated Farmers was in the process of “asking for a U-turn”, he said.

With the Australian border opened up, 40% of managed isolation spots had been freed up, which could be utilised for the benefit of the country, he said.

It was about trying to find a “happy balance” between keeping the country safe, and keeping the primary industries operating.