Call to let RSE workers back into NZ

Pacific Cooperation Foundation chairman John Fiso.

The chairman of the Pacific Cooperation Foundation believes New Zealand can achieve a win-win from providing financial support for Pacific people from neighbouring island nations by letting them into the country to help our horticultural sector in the upcoming fruit-picking season.

“Our brothers and sisters in the Pacific islands are struggling for income due to the collapse of tourism in the region, this is a way to help them – and to help our growers who are extremely concerned about labour shortages,” says John Fiso.

While NZ has experienced a second incursion of Covid-19 in recent months, he believes a pragmatic solution could be found so Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme workers from Covid-19-free Pacific countries could still travel here for work.

“Industry-managed quarantining can work for countries in the RSE scheme that are Covid-19-free, such as Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu, if protocols are in place.

“And there has been no new cases of Covid-19 reported in horticultural hotspots like Katikati or Oamaru or Marlborough.

“In Australia, it is reported that 160 seasonal workers have been recruited from Vanuatu and have started working, harvesting mango in Darwin. If it can work for Australia, it can certainly work for NZ.”

John says while he agrees with making unemployed New Zealanders a priority for employment, not all of them would be opt for this work. “If the Government thinks 60,000 people are going to pick fruit from within NZ – I think that’s a high expectation.

“Some Kiwis will want to pick fruit this season but the reality is a lot of them won’t want to uproot themselves to go to Katikati or down south to pick fruit.”

“And there is no reason why we couldn’t bring workers from the Pacific Islands and also employ New Zealanders who have lost their job. There are enough roles available for both.”

John says NZ also has a responsibility to its Pacific neighbours, especially the Pacific realm countries whose residents hold New Zealand passports “which therefore means they are under our guardianship”.

“And allowing the RSE workers to return would mean a lot to fanau in the Pacific who are hugely affected by the impact of closed borders, loss of jobs and income, and the decline in economic activity. At the same time, it prevents millions of dollars of produce in NZ going to waste. There are humanitarian and economic benefits to this.”

John says PCF helped initiate the original RSE scheme in collaboration with others in 2007, as it recognised that labour mobility was vital for the Pacific region. “PCF believes where Pacific countries are unable to bring the jobs to the people, the alternative is to bring the people to the jobs.”

The RSE worker cap was set at 5000 places in 2007 but has incrementally risen to 14,400 in October 2019. Eligible countries for recruiting workers are Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

NZ Kiwifruit Growers Inc CEO Nikki Johnson says the best-case scenario for the kiwifruit industry would be being permitted to get more RSE workers into NZ from Pacific nations for the March 2021 harvest.

“At the moment the borders are closed from a NZ Government perspective but they are probably closed from Pacific perspective as well.

“But if there was a Pacific bubble that would enable those RSE workers recognition of Covid-19-free status across both countries – those RSE workers that haven’t been home could go home and then we could bring them back or other workers out – as we normally would – to work in our harvest season.

“But that’s not looking like scenario the Government is going to accept in the short-term. There is a conversation about managed quarantine, so we are talking to government about utilising the facilities we have in our industry to undertake the quarantine required. But I’m not sure if it is feasible or affordable for RSE workers to go into managed isolation in hotel-type facilities.  

“And with an election in the mix, we will have to wait to after the next government is formed.”

Nikki says about 7000 RSE workers are currently in NZ, with many shifting around jobs to earn money. “We estimate that by next harvest there could be around 4000-5000 in NZ for all sectors of the horticulture industry if the borders don’t open.

“In the BOP – which has the majority of the kiwifruit harvest work – we’d usually have 2500 for our harvest.

“So as a horticulture industry, we’d normally have 14,400 RSE workers to share around all sectors of the industry come March – next harvest we’re likely to 4000-5000 to share between all sectors.

“So there is certainly going to be pressure on availability of those workers. So they will probably be able to move around, like they did last harvest, but it’s a question of timing.

“If they are still in Hawke’s Bay and Nelson finishing the apple harvest in March, they may not get to the BOP until quite late in the kiwifruit harvest, which is not helpful.”

John says there’s been a significant time lag since March and Covid-19 entering NZ. “And without further action there will be more hardship for Pacific families and significant list export earnings and further risk to retaining international markets, given we can be replaced relatively easily.

“NZ is making special quarantine arrangements for the foreign film industry and sports teams – why can’t the same happen for people from the Pacific?”


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