NZ and Pacific nations still poles apart on labour mobility

Byron Clark

Regional Seasonal Employer scheme used by New Zealand vineyards

A worker on the Regional Seasonal Employer scheme used by New Zealand vineyards

On September 26th acting NZ High Commissioner Sarah Wong joined Barret Salato, Director of the Solomon Islands Labour Mobility Unit in Honiara to make an announcement about Solomon Islanders working in New Zealand. “In 2014 [The] Solomon Islands will be allocated 594 RSE places” read their joint statement.

RSE stands for Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme; the scheme allows workers from a number of Pacific countries to take seasonal jobs in New Zealand. These jobs are in the horticulture and viticulture industries, where the rural location and short term nature of the work makes them unappealing to New Zealand born workers, meaning there are frequently shortages of labour despite unemployment in urban areas.

“This is an outstanding result for Solomon Islands and represents an increase of more than 20% on the number of places allocated in 2013,” said Salato “The RSE scheme is employer driven, meaning the increase in available spaces has been a result of the performance of Solomon Islanders who worked in New Zealand last season. Their exceptional performance has been rewarded with Solomon Islands receiving an extra 120 places.”

The eleven Pacific Islands Forum countries participate in the scheme, which has been operating since 2007. The “rewarding” of different nations based on the performance of their workers is not an official policy, but Salato’s comments would indicate that it happens in practice.

The scheme has had something of a checkered history despite its short existence. Conducting field work with RSE workers from Vanuatu in 2008 for research on migrant workers, Swedish political scientist Lina Ericsson uncovered a number of domestic and international labour law violations (listen to an interview with Ericsson at The Council of Trade Unions has criticised the fact that employers can make deductions from workers already low wages, often for private health insurance, as despite working and paying tax in New Zealand RSE workers are not covered by ACC.

There have also been issues around exploitation of workers not just by employers but from accommodation provides, who have provided substandard living conditions or demanded unreasonable rents. With the threat of deportation RSE workers behaviour is strictly policed, even in their own time outside work.  Samoa’s prime minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi recently announced that villages would be blacklisted from participating in the scheme if their members were sent home.

The Immigration NZ manager of the scheme, Matt Hoskin, told The New Zealand Herald that “Only a very small minority [of workers] are deported each year.” Arguably many of the offensives that lead to deportation would not result in a comparative punishment for New Zealand citizens.

While Samoa’s village blacklist is a recent development, many of the other issues have been resolved and the scheme is seen as a net positive for Pacific Island workers. This is the reason for Salato’s jubilation. However a few extra places on the RSE scheme falls short of the labour mobility agreement that the Solomon Islands and other Pacific countries want to see.

The ability for Pacific Islanders to work in Australia and New Zealand has been an on-going road block in negotiations between the two regional powers and the forum island countries (FICs) for a trade agreement to replace the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER). According to the office of the chief trade advisor for the Pacific Islands Forum, “For many FICs, regional labour mobility is the key, if not the most important, issue in PACER Plus negotiations.”

Speaking to Islands Business magazine, Robert Sisilo, Solomon Islands Trade Negotiations Envoy and Lead Negotiator for Forum Islands Countries, said that one of the main demands by FICs is to have labour mobility as an integral part of PACER-Plus so that it becomes legally binding. According to Sisilo the FICs would also like Australia and New Zealand to increase the number of eligible workers under their labour schemes and also extend their coverage to include as many sectors as possible.

“We want the same treatment for all issues and will not accept merely voluntary commitments as being proposed by Australia and New Zealand. It is simply not fair.”

Though it is sometimes framed as ‘aid’ to the Pacific, New Zealand’s RSE scheme exists mainly as a way to aid employers with a cheap migrant workforce. While Wong spoke of the extra places providing a “good income stream” for workers and “the opportunity to experience life in New Zealand” she also noted that “Importantly it provides our agricultural sector with access to a high quality labour source”. That of course is the real reason for its existence.

When Samoa’s Malielegaoi met with New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully in August he raised the same issues as Sisilo, and also expressed concerns that the scheme may see changes if there is a change in government next year. Two weeks prior to the meeting between the two, Labour’s primary industries spokesman Damien O’Connor had publically aired opposition to increasing the amount of places on the scheme.

Looked at in that context, Samoa’s village blacklisting appears as a desperate measure to curry favour with New Zealand in what Barret Salato’s words imply is a tough completion for the right to work.

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