A 7,500 signature petition was presented to parliament last week calling for changes to NZ’s immigration laws.
The Conference underlined the tremendous contribution RSE workers have made to the various industries in New Zealand that have been able to participate in the scheme. Equally important the Conference heard about the difference RSE has made to individuals and communities in the home countries of the RSE workers. In that context the stories from the workers involved in the programme were a moving testimony to the difference the programme is making in the lives of those involved in RSE work.
A strong theme that emerged from the Conference was the respect shown by all parties – employers, workers, the New Zealand government, foreign governments, researchers, and the various industries – for RSE and what it has achieved. That respect in part reflects the efforts by government officials from day one to design a scheme that addressed the flaws in similar schemes overseas so that RSE did not generate problems either in the home or destination communities.
Our industry has been a major beneficiary of RSE. When it commenced in 2007 our total vineyard area was 25,000 hectares. In 2017 it is 37,000 hectares and rising. That is over 80 million vines which need to be maintained and pruned. While RSE workers do not do all this work, they are a major component of the workforce that makes this happen.
Given that healthy vines are the very bedrock on which our industry’s reputation for quality rests, that makes RSE workers a very important cog in preserving our quality reputation. Just how important are they – try to imagine all our vines being pruned on time to the standard the industry needs without RSE workers! Given the tight labour market in New Zealand it is clear that would not happen.
So RSE is very important for our industry. But it is vital to remember that having access to RSE workers is not an industry right, rather it is a privilege. It is a privilege that our industry needs to keep demonstrating that we deserve to keep.
It is clear that most RSE workers are treated well in the industry. Equally it is clear that some workers in the industry are not treated to the standard any of us would expect.
How do we know these two points are factual?
Well on the good news front, a recent labour inspectors visit to RSE Marlborough employers evidently found good compliance with rules and regulations. Very well done to all concerned.
What about the not so good news. The stories we have seen in the media this year in Marlborough and prosecutions in the Courts definitely suggest some industry workers are not being looked after in the way any of us would expect. This is clearly not good enough.
All workers – whether directly employed or engaged through contract services – need to be treated fairly. Treating all workers well is how as an industry we will demonstrate that we deserve to retain and, indeed, expand the privileged access to RSE workers that we enjoy.
To assist the industry to meet its employment obligations, in recent months we have published new workplace guides on health and safety, and employment, including a checklist for conversations with labour supply contractors. If you have not seen them get hold of copies, they are a must read. Comply with those guidelines and the industry will generate good news stories, not negative headlines and court cases.
Looking forward it was clear at the RSE Conference that the scheme will evolve and change in the future. That is has been successful is not debated, the real question is how it will evolve in the future as the needs of the various participating industries continue to grow. The impact on the home communities (both good and bad) will need to be factored into future changes in the programme as will the impact on communities in New Zealand.
The future success of RSE will depend on the involved industries working together with the government. It is the government which makes the big decisions on RSE – the design of the programme, the requirements imposed on employers and the number of workers allowed to be part of the scheme in any one year, but industry does have input into those decisions.
To date that partnership with government has delivered a very successful programme which has benefited all parties and allowed the participating industries to grow strongly over the past 10 years.
A decade on and it was great to be part of RSE celebration. Let’s hope that the 20 year celebration will be just as positive. Whether it is or not is very much in the hands of the participating industries. Let’s be sure the wine industry plays its part in making the next 10 years a success for all involved.