RSE scheme set to expand, despite oversight concerns

New Zealand's RSE scheme has been a success for the horticulture industry - but some have raised concerns about potential worker exploitation. Photo: Erica Berenstein/AFP/Getty Images.

A seasonal worker scheme providing employment for people from the Pacific has received a $10 million boost from the Government, which says it could be expanded to cover new industries like tourism and fisheries. While most are in agreement about its value for the workers, some have raised concerns about exploitation of those who come here, as Sam Sachdeva reports.

New Zealand often speaks about the importance of its relationship with the Pacific - and the value of those ties is particularly visible in the area of seasonal labour.

Set up in 2007 by the Labour government, the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme allows workers from a number of Pacific countries into New Zealand temporarily, filling gaps in the horticulture and viticulture industries.

The cap on RSE places was originally set at 5000, but over time has more than doubled to 10,500.

Now, in the 10th year of its existence, the Government has put $10 million of new funding into the programme, in part to explore other sectors which could benefit from RSE workers.

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse describes the scheme as “an example of what is widely regarded as a world-leading migration system” with benefits for both New Zealand and the Pacific.

Horticulture NZ chief executive Mike Chapman is also an unabashed fan, saying “everyone wins”: employers get to fill temporary jobs unpopular with Kiwis, while Pacific workers get access to work they might not find at home.

“One of the winners you wouldn’t think of is some of the New Zealand communities where the Pacific Islanders live while they do their seasonal work: they go to church, they become part of the community, it makes those communities a lot richer.”

Chapman likens the relationship between workers and their employers to that of a family, saying the bond endures beyond the workplace.

“When a cyclone has come through [in a worker’s home country], there’s been work done to rebuild villages, where employers have taken builders up to the islands.”

Buoyant economy behind potential expansion

The Government has been mulling changes to the scheme for some time.

A 2014 report prepared for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade by external consultants Sapere Research Group recommended expanding the sectors covered by the RSE scheme to include areas like fisheries, forestry, tourism, agriculture and construction.

The report noted that widening the scheme would lead to funding being reallocated from other development work, while more RSE staff could be required in both the Pacific countries and New Zealand “to ensure that personnel selection standards and pre-travel administration remain satisfactory”.

MBIE appeared uninterested at the time, telling the report’s authors they did not believe there was much industry interest, while there were other “generic immigration policies” that could help those in need of overseas workers.

That view has changed, at least at a ministerial level, with Woodhouse pointing to the buoyancy of the economy as a sign that there is scope for expansion.

“We’ve got an economy now that’s growing at around 10,000 jobs a month and many of them are in the primary industries, seasonal industries, industries where demand for work fluctuates and so it’s an ideal response, an RSE-type scheme for that - certainly it's been extremely successful in horticulture and viticulture.”

He cites construction, tourism and fisheries as three specific industries which could benefit from access to Pacific workers, although cautions there is still more work to be done.

Concerns over exploitation

While many are in agreement about the value of the scheme, there are some concerns about a potential lack of scrutiny.

There have been complaints in some areas, particularly Marlborough’s vineyards, about exploitation of workers.

Central Amalgamated Union Workers organiser Steve McManus, who is encouraging Ni-Vanuatu workers in Marlborough to unionise, says while the scheme generally works well, he still receives complaints about underpayment and “pretty exorbitant” accommodation costs.

McManus says many workers were afraid about joining unions until recently, with a burst of interest and dozens keen to sign up.

“They want protection, they want employment advocates to work on their behalf because they feel like they’re threatened one way or the other and they’re not being looked after properly in some respects.”

Labour immigration spokesman Iain Lees-Galloway believes that is due in part to the lack of oversight from MBIE’s labour inspectorate, which has only become more difficult as the cap has risen dramatically.

While most employers are behaving responsibly, the Labour MP says some in the sector have told him about “rogue” employers that they fear could put the scheme at risk.

“They show no sign of changing their behaviour, and the labour inspectorate simply does not have the capacity to proactively monitor the industries...and identify all the examples of exploitation.”

There have also been concerns about the behaviour of some RSE workers: last month, Tongan Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva apologised to Prime Minister Bill English after allegations of serious sex crimes from some Tongan workers sent home for supposed excessive drinking.

Lees-Galloway supports the RSE scheme, but says the Government’s priority should be ensuring it is operating properly as is before it is expanded any further.

Immediate changes unlikely

Woodhouse denies there are significant issues with employers breaking the rules, saying one of the best components of the RSE scheme is the onus placed on them to provide “pastoral care and oversight”.

He does not believe extra resources are needed for oversight of the scheme, pointing to a recent increase in labour inspectorate numbers and a new law penalising breaches of employment law with an overseas worker “stand down” of up to two years.

“For employers that rely on overseas workers that could be devastating for their businesses, so I expect that will have a moderating effect as well.”

He also downplays the “occasional incidents” of law breaches by RSE workers, saying: “When you're talking about 10,500 people coming in for seven or eight months a year, I think the incident rate is very, very low.”

Chapman says very few RSE employers step out of line, with Horticulture NZ dealing with any who do.

“If we find anyone in that category, we work with them to make sure they meet the standards because we will not tolerate that - it’s just so unacceptable.”

Any dramatic changes in the near future appear to be off the table. The $10m of new funding covers exploratory work over a five-year period, with Woodhouse saying there are unlikely to be “any great announcements” in the next 12 to 24 months.

The Government has been cautious in how it has lifted the cap, wanting to ensure Kiwis remain “at the front of the queue” as new jobs are on offer.

Chapman says Horticulture NZ is crunching its own numbers on the need for more workers, and may go to the Government within weeks if it feels the cap should rise.