Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Mature apprentice overcomes the odds on his way to engineering qualification

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Avatar photo
Soana Aholelei | Reporter / Director

With the loud buzz of sewing machines echoing through the factory, there’s no sleeping on the job at the Comfort Group factory in Otahuhu. 

The company’s renowned for producing iconic brands such as Sleepyhead, SleepMaker and Dunlop foam. 

And among the layers of foam and materials in the factory, it’s hard to miss the smiles and laughter of Pasifika, Māori and Indian staff going about their jobs, many of whom have been working on the floor for years.

No stranger to the staff is Group Operations Manager Cameron Turner who knows all too well what it’s like working here. A family business, he’s been helping out in the factory since he was in his teens.

Panapa admits that up-skilling has been difficult at times, admitting he was too shy to ask questions and almost gave up.

“In this factory is just a little over 120 but we currently employ around 1200 people across Australia, New Zealand,” Turner says.

In 2021 a new initiative with the help of training provider Competenz Te Pūkenga was introduced to the company.

“One of the things that we pride ourselves in this business is that someone might have not been working in the business for very long, but they see a fellow employee climb the ranks of the company right in front of them. And they see that as an opportunity,” Turner says.

Taking the opportunity to upskill is Tokelauan Peni Panapa who’s been with the company for 18 years. He signed up to a mechanical engineering apprenticeship to qualify as a sewing machine mechanic.

“When he mentioned to me that the course is run by Pasifika and the group is Pacific people, I was happy that I will be with some of my own, especially cultures,” he says.

Group Operations Manager Cameron Turner says the factory has a little over 120 workers and employs around 1200 people across Australia and New Zealand.

Panapa admits that up-skilling has been difficult at times, admitting he was too shy to ask questions and almost gave up.

“In my first year as an apprentice. It was really hard. I was thinking of chucking everything in and going back on the floor or something,” Panapa says. 

“The language barrier with the written materials that was sent to me, it was really difficult.” 

But thankfully through his tutor and translator, he found help with a study group.

“I think that was the lifeline, they got me back on the horse and now I can ask the questions, I understand now what’s needed to be to be done,” he says.

The father of four is now in his final year in his apprenticeship, those around him noticing the new confidence in Panapa.

“I think that change happened probably just over a year in, maybe halfway through the course where you could see him going, ‘actually, you know, my skills are starting to grab,” says Turner.

“And he was getting that feeling of accomplishment when he came to work and he was confident in what he was doing. So definitely… seeing that change.” 

Spokesperson for Competenz Te Pūkenga, Sheriah Kumar chats with Peni.

Spokesperson for Competenz Te Pūkenga, Sheriah Kumar is also pleased with Peni’s progress and how the course is running.

“We’re really dedicated to providing equitable outcomes for all of our learners. So, creating space like the Pasifika learners support group, is really helpful for people like Peni,” says Kumar.  

“To have a safe environment, to ask the questions they need, talk about anything that they want to, relating to the course, and be able to have that help that they need, to get them through.” 

Now 51-years old, Panapa, he’s glad that his studies are nearly over and that he’s close to becoming fully qualified.

“I’m thankful and happy.  My mind is set to finish this course given my age,” he says. 

“You know, I’m fresh-off-the-boat and never been in New Zealand before and never went to school in New Zealand but it’s really like an awakening for me to start something new, and it’s brilliant!”



Stay Connected

Subscribe to our mailing list to receive daily updates direct to your inbox!

*we hate spam as much as you do