by Byron Clark.
Following questions directed at Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse from opposition MPs and media regarding a meeting with businessman and National Party donor Donghua Liu, who in Woodhouses words “had ideas about investor policies and his experience as a migrant coming in” Woodhouse rejected the idea that the meeting was controversial, claiming there were “hundreds of examples” of people who don’t donate to political parties who have access to him and other ministers.
The MANA movement responded by issuing a press release inviting the minister to make a house call “to discuss the matter of a struggling family of three children, one of whom has a medical condition which a medical expert said would be exacerbated in a hot Pacific climate and advised strongly against the child being forced to live there”.
Significant was the statement from MANA co-president John Minto: “MANA wants to discuss with the Minister why the government discriminates against Pacific people from Tonga and Samoa while it puts out the welcome mat for anyone from Australia – irrespective of skills or any other criteria. An Australian can get off the plane, get a job and no-one bats an eyelid but Tongan and Samoan people face demeaning discrimination to enter New Zealand.”
While locally there isn’t a groundswell of support for opening New Zealand’s borders to people from the Pacific, regional labour mobility has been a key demand of Pacific countries in the ongoing negotiations for a successor to the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER). “The reality is that without substantive commitments on labour mobility and development assistance, [Australia and New Zealand] will be the major beneficiaries of this Agreement.” Robert Sisilo, Lead Spokesperson for the Forum Island Countries (FICs) told the Solomon Star News on May 5th.
“We have three main demands on Labour Mobility, namely the legal certainty of the RSE and SWP labour schemes, removal of the caps or increasing the current numbers and to include employment sectors in which the FICs have a comparative advantage such as healthcare and construction.”
The Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme allows workers from a number of Pacific countries to come to New Zealand for fruit-picking jobs in the provinces. It was created in response to labour shortages. While under the scheme employers must give New Zealand citizens hiring priority, few citizens are moving to rural towns to take up the low wage work.
In many ways the scheme has been hugely positive for Pacific island countries, for whom labour could be considered an export, but workers who come here are at risk of the all too frequent abuses of migrant labour: underpayment of wages, violation of labour laws, substandard accommodation, and the threat of deportation if they complain about any of the above.
One ridiculous seeming example of the tight control RSE workers are put under is the actions following a group of Vanuatu workers entertaining people at a multi-cultural day in Nelson, this activity as well as busking at weekend markets were deemed to be illegal secondary employment, as the workers were only here to pick fruit. Presumably, these workers are not among Michael Woodhouse’s “hundreds of examples” of people who have access to him.
Giving workers from the Pacific the same rights in New Zealand as Australians would not immediately stop the abuses happening to RSE workers, but it would remove the threat of deportation and in doing so make it easier for those workers to join unions and have grievances addressed, at the very least it would mean no one stopping them from busking on their day off.
Taking the side of migrant workers is a principled stand in an election year where the Labour Party is hoping to ride a wave of anti-immigrant populism by talking of cutting immigrant numbers from the current 31,000 per year to somewhere between 5000 and 15,000. NZ First has gone further with policy to ban migrants from living in the major cities until they have been in the country for five years, and the Green’s have been largely silent on the issue. In this instance MANA is showing itself to be a genuine party of the dispossessed.