29 Nov 2023

Seasonal employment schemes an 'opportunity' but concerns they 'will empty villages'

4:14 pm on 29 November 2023
A ni-Vanuatu doing seasonal work in New Zealand under the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme.

A ni-Vanuatu doing seasonal work in New Zealand under the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

New Zealand and Australia need to listen to Pacific leaders when they say there are problems with labour mobility schemes, a Massey University academic says.

The number of Pacific Island seasonal workers in New Zealand has doubled in the last decade.

A coalition agreement between New Zealand's National and ACT parties aims to increase the recognised seasonal employment (RSE) worker cap.

The National Party had pledged to double the seasonal worker cap from 19,000 to 38,000, and the coalition agreement signed on Friday pledged to increase the cap but did not specify by how much.

Dr Api Movono told RNZ's Nine to Noon the many villages were being emptied of workers.

He said the responsibility to change the scheme is with the bigger countries.

"They (Australia and New Zealand) have the money, they have the expertise and it is in their interest to invest in Pacific Islanders and to listen to what Pacific Island leaders are saying, because what they're saying is, there is a problem here," Dr Movono.

He said while the move by the NZ coalition government will be welcomed by individuals, it would not be well received by Pacific governments.

"It will be welcomed by most because there will be opportunity to travel to New Zealand and Australia.

"But there's the worry that we will have empty villages and we will have our governments scrambling to replace these seasonal labour force that are lost to these seasonal work schemes."

He said New Zealand should consider the wellbeing of communities they are taking workers from.

'Separating fathers from children'

There are also concerns that children in the Pacific were being raised by grandparents so their parents can work in seasonal worker schemes.

Dr Movono told Nine to Noon while remittances were hitting record highs because of the schemes, it came at a social cost.

"We are separating fathers from their children," he said.

"In some instances, children are left with their grandparents or other relatives to be able to allow for both parents to travel on these schemes."

New Zealand and Australia need to listen to Pacific leaders when they say there are problems with seasonal employer schemes, he said.

Samoa: 'We need to cap'

Samoa's trade commissioner Va'atu'itu'i Apete Meredith said the labour schemes have caused some negative economic impacts.

"Before it was only New Zealand that had caps per annum of the number of workers, they can bring into New Zealand but now we are introducing a cap ourselves," Va'atu'itu'i said.

Samoa's new policy, which is still being finalised, prioritises those not in paid work.

"Those vulnerable communities are the ones that don't have the access to employment, they're basically like the unemployed or the unemployable."

Va'atu'itu'i said the NZ government's plans to increase RSE workers from the Pacific was to meet "their needs".

"That's a call by the New Zealand government themselves, in terms of their needs. Based on our needs, we need to cap so that we retain some of our own productive personnel sector back home."

Positive impact - report

A new report by the World Bank found labour mobility schemes have had a positive social and economic impact on Pacific communities.

The study, conducted by the World Bank and Australian National University, interviewed more than 2000 workers from Kiribati, Tonga, and Vanuatu.

The report states most workers were very satisfied with their experience.

Tongan workers can earn about four times what they would back home, and ni-Vanuatu can earn up to 10 times more.

According to the report, the schemes were widely perceived as beneficial by both participating and non-participating households.

But it also acknowledges several issues needing to be addressed, such as making salary deductions more transparent.

One of the co-authors of both the research, Dung Doan said New Zealand and Australian labour mobility schemes have economic and social benefits.

"In many cases, the higher incomes contribute to reduce potential conflicts between partners, especially when money constraints is a source of conflict before."

The long Pacific Australia Labour Mobility stream allows workers to stay in the country for up to four years, while New Zealand has a maximum stay of nine months.

Doan said a longer opportunity to stay means more industries can hire Pacific workers.

"The contract duration is one to four years and our view is given the large benefit of this scheme, especially in economic terms, something similar could be introduced in New Zealand context as well, because as you know the RSE is only for seasonal works and the contract is less than a year."

However, Doan said dissatisfaction among workers often revolved around unclear salary deductions.

"Our recommendation would involve around addressing their dissatisfaction with salary deduction, and this could relate to both managing expectations so they are well informed, and they have fully informed consent about what will be deducted from their salary before they start working in the host country."

Focus non-RSE countries

Massey University's professor in Pacific research said New Zealand should consider focusing RSE worker recruitment on countries where the scheme is less popular, such as Papua New Guinea.

Professor Regina Scheyvens told RNZ Nine to Noon twenty percent of Vanuatu and Samoa's productive male labour force is already in Australia or New Zealand.

"That means there's not maths teachers in some classrooms, that means there's mechanics missing from workshops, bank tellers, farmers not there producing foods," Professor Scheyvens said.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs