Firm control put on work plan

By Paula Oliver

The Government is promising tight controls on its new Pacific Island seasonal work permit programme, amid concern that the scheme might lead to more overstayers.

Up to 5000 Pacific workers will be allowed to enter New Zealand from April 2007 on seasonal permits to work in horticulture and viticulture jobs, to address a chronic labour shortage.

But while they will be required to return home after seven months of work in New Zealand, the Government admits there is a risk some might want to stay on longer, illegally.

Immigration Minister David Cunliffe said yesterday that to reduce that risk, the new policy included funding for additional compliance and enforcement officers.

"If they do not [return home], the registered employer may be subject to fines and may lose their registered employer status," Mr Cunliffe said.

To take part in the scheme, employers must first show that they cannot find New Zealand workers to do the seasonal jobs they need done.

Typically, this work includes planting, pruning and picking.

National's immigration spokesman, Lockwood Smith, said yesterday that while his party was concerned about New Zealand's skills shortage, Labour's track record with overstayers "is woeful".

"New Zealand needs these workers ... but it must be a two-way street - if they breach our immigration laws they must be shown the door smartly," Dr Smith said.

As many as 20,000 overstayers are estimated to be in New Zealand.

The Council of Trade Unions, meanwhile, said it planned to make sure that not only the employment rights of the workers were upheld - but also wider social protections, including access to public healthcare.

Peter Silcock, chief executive of Horticulture NZ, said the new programme was "along the lines" of what the industry had been asking for.

But he said the industry wanted more detail about how the Pacific Island priority would work, and had concerns it could eventually replace the existing Seasonal Work Permit scheme.


What happens under the scheme?

Pacific workers will have preferential access to seasonal jobs in New Zealand's horticulture and viticulture sectors - but employers must first show that they cannot get New Zealanders for the job. Up to 5000 workers from all Pacific Islands Forum nations can be recruited each season. Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu will get early help to prepare workers, so employers can access labour quickly. Workers will be able to stay for a maximum of seven months, and then must return home.

Why is the programme being launched?

New Zealand's unemployment rate is at a record low and market gardeners and orchardists are struggling to get pickers and pruners. Backpackers on working holiday schemes do take up fruit-picking jobs, but don't always stay for the whole season.

Don't we already have a seasonal permit scheme?

Yes. A seasonal work permit was introduced last December to help meet peak labour needs in the horticulture and viticulture industries. Since then, 4087 such permits have been approved for people from abroad, with Brazil topping the list on 1272. Malaysia is second on 679, and the Czech Republic is third on 385. Under the new scheme, it is likely these people will be gradually replaced with Pacific Islands workers.

Why are Pacific people being favoured?

The Government says it is giving Pacific people priority as temporary migrants because of NZ's "special relationship" with and commitment to the Pacific region. People from outside the region visiting on working holiday visas will still be able to work as fruit-pickers.

Who will pay?

Employers will have to pay half of the travel costs for workers flying to and from New Zealand. The worker pays the other half. Employers must guarantee pay for at least 240 hours of work, and also offer pastoral care - including suitable accommodation, translation, and transport where appropriate. Employers must also commit to paying the costs for removing workers from New Zealand if they overstay.

What will be done to reduce the overstaying risk?

The Government hopes the permit's seven-month duration means employees will maintain close ties with their home countries. Workers will also be able to return to New Zealand for the following season, so the temptation to stay illegally may be reduced. Employers face a financial penalty if their workers overstay, and the Government is putting more money into compliance and enforcement measures.

Will there be any testing of the migrants?

Workers from countries with a high risk of TB will be tested before being issued with a visa. Standard character requirements must also be met. Work is under way to see if further health testing is needed.

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