Seasonal workers coming back but who will make sure they're looked after?

By Rukuwai Tipene-Allen

A welcome back from the New Zealand government to Pacific Island RSE workers after the cabinet announced that a one-way travel passage will be established to help with the growing need for workers.

But who is looking out for the wellbeing of the whanaunga and is the government turning to the Pacific to remedy New Zealand's issues?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced one-way quarantine free travel for RSE workers from Tonga, Vanuatu and Samoa. She told media in her weekly post-cabinet press conference the agricultural sector was experiencing challenges. "We've heard the call from primary sectors and others to bring in additional workers in a safe way and we think that is now possible."

She said the detail including repatriation is something the government was working through. Before the pandemic raging around the globe, about 14,500 RSE workers were expected to help boost the horticulture sector but there are only 7000 in the country now.

Reciprocal benefits

MPs are confident that the RSE Scheme is a benefit to both New Zealand and the Pacific. Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni recognised the contribution the Pacific workforce brings to the New Zealand economy and said it was reciprocal. She noted the huge interest in the scheme seen recently in Samoa. 

2007 saw the RSE Scheme come into effect.  The policy is meant to allow the horticulture and viticulture industries to recruit workers from overseas for seasonal work when there are not enough New Zealand workers who can do the job. Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi said he has spoken with industries and wanted to ensure people were coming to jobs and accommodation. 

RSE overhaul needed

It has been reported that unions and economists have suggested an overhaul of the RSE scheme, saying the fruit and vegetable Pacific Islands pickers are being handed the short end of the stick, with high costs and poor pay, and are often left with almost no money to send home.   

Greens co-leader Marama Davidson said New Zealand needed to ensure the RSE workers were treated in the same way as residents. 

In recent years cases of mistreatment have appeared before the courts. It has been reported that some workers have had costs deducted from their pay, have had poor living conditions and have been abused by employers. 

A report called Picking Cherries was released by economic researcher NZIER for the Productivity Commission in April, which said although low-skilled workers were filling a gap, they were increasing productivity overall.

David Vaeafe, a project manager at Pacific Cooperation Foundation, says offering education could help people coming to work here and that establishing things like night classes where workers can learn a new skill would be beneficial and add to their experience. He believes this would help their lives both here and at home. 

Māori involvement

Before the Dawn Raids in the 1970s the government actively pursued Pacific Island workers to assist in the country's economic boom. 
A few years later and those workers were turned into targets. The government has since apologised and change has happened.

However, the question of wellbeing may be answered in whakapapa. Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi asked where Māori were in the decision making, He said Māori should have a role to play in ensuring that their relations were looked after. 

However, some whānau seem to be getting left behind. Reports say some Pacific families are stuck in New Zealand and immigration issues are a problem. 

Minister Faafoi said a review of RSE worker conditions was underway.