Solidarity needed: Stop increases to migrant seasonal workers health insurance

Regional Seasonal Employer scheme used by New Zealand vineyards

An RSE worker

The death this year of a Tongan worker employed under the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme has sparked discussions between Tonga’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and the insurance company he paid for his health cover. The issue is whether the worker died because of a pre-existing condition or from a new condition or accident.

The RSE scheme allows employers in the horticulture and viticulture industries to bring in migrant workers, mostly from the South Pacific, during the busy season to fill labour shortages. Although these workers pay tax in New Zealand they are not eligible for public health care and require private health insurance.

The ministry’s deputy chief executive, Meleoni Uera, told Radio New Zealand International that the policy needs to be revised even if it results in RSE workers – on top of taxes – having to pay higher insurance premiums and also pay for additional mandatory medical checks.

“It is an area that we will look at… (with) thorough discussion with different parties because cost will be involved in the whole process, and for a lot of this it will be the seasonal workers currently, they bear the cost of any additional checks.”

The cause of death is unknown. The man was the second Tongan RSE worker to die while working in New Zealand in the last six years. The other died of a heart attack. A Ni-Vanuatu worker also died in New Zealand in that time.

The New Zealand-based Tonga Advisory Council is reminding potential applicants for the RSE scheme to make full disclosures, particularly about health.

Being required to pay taxes, but not receive public health care is disadvantaging to RSE workers. The attitude of internal affairs is to increase that disadvantage by increasing the already burdensome costs of health insurance. These are the types of disadvantages that migrant workers frequently face.

The government will seek to show that RSE workers with medical conditions are ‘cheating’ the system. The issue then is why people would travel to a foreign country when they have serious health issues. The answer is simple; people are becoming desperate in the search for comparably better incomes than are available in their own countries. It is the same with the 53,700 people, in 2012 alone, who left New Zealand looking for a better life in Australia.

Just as some Australian unions show common cause with New Zealand workers in Australia, workers in New Zealand must align themselves with the RSE workers here. New Zealand residents do not gain anything from the exploitation or ill-treatment of RSE workers. And they certainly won’t profit from the New Zealand government forcing tax-paying RSE workers to pay higher premiums to insurance companies.

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