A scheme allowing Pacific workers short-term work on New Zealand orchards and farms is under fire from a human rights lawyer.
“Our general conclusion is that on balance, after 13 years, the balance has shifted away from benefits for the workers and families, to benefits for New Zealand,” migration export Professor Richard Bedford told attendees at a Talanoa Fa’apasifika in Blenheim in June, canvassing unintended consequences, such as the loss of productivity in workers’ home villages, and uneven Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) work opportunities across the islands. “A rebalancing of benefits is required.”
The RSE Impact Studies were undertaken from March 2018 to May 2020, across five of the nine Pacific countries involved in the scheme, and six New Zealand host communities. The work found that RSE worker wellbeing and financial returns require greater focus, unequal distribution of RSE benefits must be addressed, and potential negative impacts for Pacific families and communities from labour mobility must be mitigated.
The RSE scheme’s focus has been on meeting the demands and expectations of employers, with less attention to workers’ experiences and viewpoints, says the report. That poses a risk, “given the scrutiny of international customers on socially sustainable employment practices throughout their supply chains”, it concludes, recommending a “recalibration of worker conditions”, including that earnings keep pace with increasing living costs and other participation costs. Barriers need to be addressed to enable workers to have greater voice to express concerns, while a multi-entry visa for RSE workers should be introduced so they can return home for events such as funerals.
Over the past 13 years of the programme, recruitment has largely been employer-led, the report notes. RSE employers want return, skilled workers and may recruit from specific communities with developed relationships, leading to “significant disparities in access to RSE employment opportunities” across the participating countries.
The third risk area is around the potential negative impacts for Pacific families and communities from labour mobility, including family separation and the loss of productive community members. Among the solutions posed is giving greater prominence to the role of the worker’s family in the way the RSE scheme is framed, and building more vocational training in the Vakameasina courses run for RSE workers in New Zealand, “to establish an incomegenerating venture at home”.
The report notes that while the RSE has operated as a relatively stable programme over the past 13 years, it is important to ensure it “does not simply remain fit for purpose, but enhances its reputation as a best practice labour mobility scheme”.