The number of Pacific people permitted as fly-in-fly-out seasonal workers will increase to 16,000 next year.
The special work visas cater to the labour needs of the horticulture and viticulture industries through the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme (RSE). Next year's quota was announced last week as part of the Government's revamped immigration policies.
Under the scheme, established in 2007, individuals work for up to seven to nine months a year in harvesting and pruning. The overwhelming majority of those workers are Pacific men. When the season is over, workers return to their native homeland and families. The process is often repeated the next year, with RSE surveys showing the majority of returning Pacific workers are rehired by a previous employer. This year's survey also showed nearly all returning workers (96 per cent) helped train new employees.
Over the past 12 years, these RSE workers have become fundamental parts of expanding wine and fruit industries. So much so, that in response to last week's announcement, Horticulture NZ simultaneously applauded the increased visa quota while deeming it to be insufficient for future years. Past media reports have also highlighted the tonnes of rotting produce and acres of unpicked orchards which result when workers under the scheme have not been available.
So, as the Government gets stuck into its latest immigration reforms, it is worth examining why this group of workers is treated differently from other migrants.
First, unlike many other work visas, the RSE visa does not provide a path to a more permanent life in New Zealand. Importantly, there is no real incentive to upskill workers as the purpose of the RSE scheme is unskilled labour. Therefore, while New Zealand continues to benefit from imported labour largely out of its own backyard, the likelihood of those workers upskilling and departing from a scheme that requires many months, often years, away is slim. Similarly, the constraints of the RSE scheme mean workers are unlikely to become qualified for a visa that can lead to a more stable, family-friendly life in New Zealand.
Second, RSE workers cannot support family members to apply for a visa to live with them - even though they may reside here for most of the year. Notably, those who return for subsequent work seasons likely spend more time in New Zealand than their homeland over an extended number of years.
Comments from a Hawke's Bay landlord provide valuable insight into the lifestyle of some RSE workers. His observation was part of a Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment determination on an unrelated issue last year.
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"They [workers] return every year and live together in the same house for up to nine months of every year [and] they return often to the same accommodation and bed," the landlord said. "Many will leave their possessions at the accommodation for use on their return."
Certainly, RSE workers are not left out of pocket for their labour. Often, wages paid to workers filter back to the islands in remittance. However, as the University of Auckland's Toeolesulusulu Damon Salesa points out, the scheme raises significant moral and ethical questions.
Perhaps the most poignant: Why are these workers and their families not allowed to live here alongside others who contribute to the economy?
In his book, Island Time: New Zealand's Pacific Futures , the associate professor of Pacific Studies discusses the history of Pacific unskilled labour in New Zealand. It is worth considering in today's context, particularly as the RSE scheme continues to expand. For the record, the latest RSE visa quota of 16,000 is more than triple the original number of workers initially permitted in 2007. Surveys also show employers often prefer new Pacific RSE workers to other new employees found locally.
Salesa: "[Pacific workers] were to be the labour force that fuelled New Zealand's post-war industrial boom, and backfilled gaps in New Zealand's labour market that it either could not fill, or that were unattractive and undesirable to workers already in New Zealand.
"It is worth remembering that Pacific people had been raised by New Zealand to be in this labour market position: in the parts of the Pacific New Zealand ruled, there was a deliberate policy not to educate Pacific people - a policy reversed only when international pressure for development and decolonisation made this position untenable."
As the 'benefits' of the RSE scheme and Pacific workers are extolled by employers, it is important to consider what type of Pacific New Zealand is really promoting. The booming RSE scheme demotes significant numbers of Pacific people to semi-permanent residence-status in New Zealand, despite evidence showing they have been - and will continue to be - an essential part of the horticulture and viticulture industries for years.
Other work visa streams not reliant on Pacific workers allow for family members to be sponsored and the possibility of earning permanent or extended residency. Why then are those on the RSE scheme different?
Shamefully, it seems we have returned to a discriminatory and oppressive policy regarding labour and our island neighbours.