Josephine Varghese: Who benefits most from NZ’s seasonal agricultural migration scheme?

Josephine Varghese: Who benefits most from NZ’s seasonal agricultural migration scheme?

Last week the Labour government announced an expansion of the Recognised Seasonal Employee (RSE) Scheme for the horticulture and viticulture sectors. The number of workers allowed under the scheme has been raised from 16,000 to 19,000. This is the largest increase in over a decade.

The cap on RSE workers was instituted to encourage employers to recruit local workers where possible. But the seasonal/sporadic nature of the work, low pay, remote rural locations and overall poor and unstable conditions of work in this sector fail to attract local workers in significant numbers.

Immigration minister Michael Wood stated, “The additional 3,000 places is a 19 per cent increase on the previous season, and acknowledges the industry’s current needs based on strong growth, and the lower number of working holiday makers onshore right now.”

The scheme was introduced by the Fifth Labour government in 2007 and covers Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Visas are employer-attached (workers cannot change their employer), and workers are allowed to stay in New Zealand for a maximum of 7 to 9 months in a 11-month period.

Apart from expanding the worker cap, the recent policy reform also introduces sick leave entitlement to workers, as well as an 0800 hotline to report concerns and abuses. The Government states that the decision came after a ‘tripartite process’ involving business leaders, government and unions.


Unions not yet fully convinced

Regional Secretary of the Amalgamated Workers Union Wellington, Robert Popata, who represented seasonal workers in talks with the government said “there’s no secret we reluctantly agreed” and that “if industry and their employers don’t tidy up their acts, then, you know, they need to be dealt [with]”.

Meanwhile the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (NZCTU) met with the Immigration Minister and conveyed deep concerns with the RSE scheme.

NZCTU President Richard Wagstaff said, “As unions we cannot stand by while there are reports of RSE workers in NZ facing exploitation and unacceptable working and living conditions” and that “these workers are vulnerable and need stronger protection and advocacy, so they don’t become victims of rip-off employers”.


Horticulture and Viticulture sectors welcome the move

The horticulture and viticulture industries, predictably, have welcomed the expanded numbers in the scheme. The chief executive of New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated (NZKGI), Colin Bond described the move as a “much needed win” for the sector. He added, “the NZKGI is pleased with the announcement” and that the increase would go “quite some way” to support the labour supply issues faced by the sector, leading up to summer and the 2023 harvest season.

Similarly, Chief executive of New Zealand Apples and Pears Incorporated (NZAPI) Terry Meikle said that the added workers would enable members of his group to move forward with investment and business plans as the sector headed into a new season.

“We are still working through how the extra RSE workers will be allocated across the horticulture and viticulture sectors, but what is important is that this scheme, now in its 15th year, is an essential element in New Zealand’s bilateral relationship with several Pacific Island nations,” Meikle said.


Concerns about worker rights and working conditions

During the announcement, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that she would “continue to ensure that RSE workers are well-supported”. However, the track record of the RSE scheme in terms of workers’ wellbeing has been abysmal. Union representative Robert Popata, for instance, expressed surprise that this scheme, instituted by a Labour Government in 2007, is only now including a provision for sick leave. Workers have, since the inception of the programme, been required to pay for medical insurance. While providing sick leave is definitely a step in the right direction, there is the issue of access to healthcare in the rural regions where most RSE workers are based. As it is, New Zealand is facing shortages in medical staff and capacity. The government needs to ensure that workers can effectively access healthcare during their time here.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner (EEOC) Dr. Saunoamaali’i Karanina Sumeo also expressed surprise at how soon the decision was made. It was only in August that Dr. Sumeo released the appaling details of an investigation carried out on RSE working conditions in Blenheim. She described the situation as “exploited, bonded to unreasonable debts, living in slum-like conditions and denied religious and cultural freedoms”. Workers were being overcharged for lodging, transport, clothing and insurance. In one example cited by the commissioner, the lodging deduction for one room shared with five other people was 150 per week. It often took months for workers to pay off the debt accrued on airfare and visa fees. Dr. Sumeo had called for investigations into these issues and reported certain violations to the police, but so far none of the employers have been held accountable.

An excerpt from the media report released following the EEOC investigation underlines the dire conditions of workers at one Blenheim site:

“Conditions are so bad, some of the workers say they are desperate to go home, but have been unable because they are in debt to their employers for flights, work clothing, or tools. Some have so many deductions from their pay each week, they end up with as little as $100”.

On the very morning of the Government announcement, another case of overcrowding and overcharging RSE workers was reported from Roturua. The employer responsible, Seeka, denied any wrongdoing, claiming that labour inspectors had okayed their facilities. Recently, Seeka got their RSE licence renewed until 2025.

In another instance from Otago, police were investigating an incident where a worker said he was made to lie on the floor, stood on, and sworn at. Workers also reported that the farm owner threatened to “put them on a plane” when he was angry.


Soaring profits in the Horticulture and Viticulture Sector: Who benefits?

While much of New Zealand’s population is riling under the combined impact of a cost of living crisis and housing crisis, big business is raking in billions in profit. Recent figures show that despite the pandemic, NZ businesses saw an increase in their profit margins of 60% over the last two years. The Covid economic response of the Government has been critiqued by many, including economist Bernard Hickey, who, in January, found that the wealthy had become richer by nearly a trillion dollars, while the poorest were 400 million more in debt to the Government itself. Recent studies on inequality show that the top 10% own 60% of the wealth in New Zealand, while the bottom 50% own a mere 2%. Inequality has been steadily increasing in New Zealand since the mid 1980s.

The success of the horticulture and viticulture sectors is often portrayed as a ‘New Zealand success’. Recently, following news that the sector outperformed predictions, trade minister Damien O’Connor congratulated the sector, saying “the result is a testament to the efforts of New Zealand’s farmers, growers, foresters, fishers and processors”. However, much of the hard work is done by the exploited RSE workers who are overcharged, underpaid, and bonded to their employers through debt and visa conditions.

Furthermore, it is important to think about how these sectors benefit the average citizen of Aotearoa New Zealand. Despite huge output in terms of produce, and despite billions in profit, people in New Zealand continue to pay higher rates than much of the world for nutritious fruit and vegetables. The profit-focus of the industry and the Government’s pro-corporate approach makes it difficult to address New Zealand’s own problems with food insecurity, child poverty and nutrition.


RSE scheme an example of New Zealand’s colonial relationship with the Pacific?

In recent months, concerns have been raised about China’s influence in the Pacific, with commentators in New Zealand and Australia comparing it to colonialism. The current debate around conditions of migrant labour from the Pacific is a good opportunity to think about New Zealand’s own influence in the region, which has been one of exploitation (of resources and labour) for the gains of a narrow capitalist class.

The RSE scheme and conditions associated with it have been variously described as “bonded labour”, “exploitation of workers from the Pacific” and “modern day slavery” by observers, analysts and journalists. During a New Zealand cross-party visit to Samoa this year, even capitalist-friendly ACT party leader David Seymour described the working conditions under RSE as akin to “indentured servitude”.

Indentured labour was a key feature of British colonialism in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, but it seems to continue in contemporary times through programs like RSE that offer meagre rights to workers.


Labour Shortages in the Pacific

Apart from the concerns on workers’ basic rights, many observers have noted that the RSE scheme constitutes a labour-drain from tiny Pacific nations. Vanuatu, for instance, is currently developing a domestic labour policy to address the potential skilled labour drain that the expanded RSE scheme poses to their nation. Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa had also expressed concern about the skilled-labour drain induced by RSE earlier this year.

The question that arises is whether New Zealand, as the entity that disproportionately profits from this labour exchange, has a responsibility to help improve the domestic economies of Pacific nations, by contributing to efforts that would build the productive capacities and infrastructure there, so that they can retain much needed labour and talent. It seems this is the route that China has been taking to improve relations in the Pacific.


The Way forward

Two days after the expanded RSE scheme was announced, the Associate Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety Priyanca Radhakrishnan introduced the Worker Protection (Migrant and Other Employees) Bill. While the Bill has some encouraging components, including a public register of individuals and businesses that are found guilty of migrant exploitation, and penalties for infringement of worker rights, it has stopped short of decoupling visas from employers, which is one of the primary sources of power imbalance between the workers and employers. Green Party MP Ricardo Menendez March likened the proposed changes to “an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff”.

The Labour Government needs to do much more to prove their stated commitment to the dignity and humanity of workers who are part of our Pacific whanaunga and whose labour is central to the profits amassed by the horticulture and viticulture sectors.


Dr Josephine Varghese is a Political Analyst and Researcher at the Democracy Project, Victoria University of Wellington


This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.