21 May 2022

RSE scheme needs an overhaul - Green Party MP

3:31 pm on 21 May 2022

Pacific Island Recognised Seasonal Employers (RSE) workers are being neglected, mistreated and exploited in New Zealand, according to a submission reviewed by a Parliament select committee.

An i-Kiribati RSE worker at Matakana.

Fruit picker Photo: Supplied/Charlotte Bedford

In the submission made by the Amalgamated Workers Union of New Zealand (AWUNZ), a ni-Vanuatu RSE worker stationed in Otago complained of overcrowded backpacker-like accommodation conditions where workers were only allowed three-minute showers.

He said workers were scared to join unions and he suspected many who did join were then blacklisted.

"The rules are too restrictive, one is that we are not allowed, visitors. As an Islander, the rules are offensive to our culture," said a ni-Vanuatu worker who did not want to be named.

"It's overcrowded ... there's no privacy to talk to your wife. There are no heaters in the room and we are not allowed to buy extra heaters ... it gets too cold in winter. We get three-minute showers. On a hot sunny day, when you come back, you need a good shower ... three minutes is not enough.

"There have been a lot of threats that we won't be allowed to return to New Zealand if we join a union. There's a real fear for the boys .... since 2018, there have been 20 to 40 boys who joined and they never returned."

The submission has struck a chord with the Green Party, which released a press statement calling on the government to reconsider a recent immigration reset, to be more inclusive of Pasifika migrants.


"The RSE scheme needs an overhaul," said Green Party MP Ricardo Menendez March, who was part of the parliamentary committee that reviewed the submission.

"We need far better conditions for RSE workers. We don't want to hear stories of overcrowded accommodations and not being afforded the same rights New Zealand citizen workers," he added.

More than 7000 Pacific Island seasonal workers are estimated to be in New Zealand, harvesting and pruning fruits in orchards throughout the country as part of the Recognised Seasonal Employers scheme, which has been hailed as a success by many for helping to alleviate the poverty of countries like Tonga where nearly a quarter of adults survive on less than $NZ22 a day.

But many critics look down on the system as exploitative, outsourcing the poor and desperate to get cheap labour for a job that attracts few Kiwis.

"So many people see this RSE scheme and think it's fantastic. They'll say 'look at this beautiful village type housing' but they're not seeing the other side", AWUNZ regional organiser Michelle Johnstone said.

Johnstone said many seasonal workers were being conned by unscrupulous employers, which included overcharging seasonal workers for rent and utilities. She said because they are bonded and non-citizens, they cannot leave their accommodation and find other employment.

"They pay everything from accommodation to health insurance, and the costs just keep rising every year. I mean they're supposed to be making a living here and sending money back home. I mean, it's hard enough for them to survive here alone and they're getting paid minimum wage," Johnstone said.

Fruit pickers

Fruit pickers Photo: Supplied

"RSE workers need to be able to have bargaining power with their employer because they're bonded to their employer if they have a disagreement or feel they're not getting a fair choice, or even abused. They can't leave their accommodation and get another job."

The stories of abuse are not unique to the AWUNZ. New Zealand's second-largest trade union, First Union, has also expressed its concerns.

"We're still getting a lot of reports", said Dennis Maga, its general secretary.

"Some employers have been imposing restrictions that workers cannot socialize within their communities and they also implement curfews ... if they're not back by 10pm, then penalties are imposed. We've also heard complaints about poor accommodation.

"Some employers are very supportive of their employees, but then there are also employers who believe that isolating their workers is the best way so they can keep them away from outside influence, which we don't understand," Maga said.