17 Aug 2022

Workplace Relations Minister confirms govt review of RSE scheme

From Checkpoint, 5:44 pm on 17 August 2022

Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood has confirmed the government will do a full review of the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme early next year.

It comes after the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner witnessed conditions she described as modern day slavery. 

Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner Karanina Sumeo said some RSE workers brought here from Pacific nations were being exploited, bonded to unreasonable debt and living in very poor conditions.

Those were the conditions workers faced under the government's RSE scheme, according to an investigation carried out by the commissioner.

In a letter to the minister, Sumeo said fundamental human rights were being breached and some of what she had seen warranted criminal investigation.

"I described it as exploitation... the conditions which they were living in would not be acceptable for any of our family members so I found it hard to believe that businesses who knew the conditions that these men were living in found that acceptable because it's not acceptable," Sumeo told Checkpoint. 

"It's a violation of their basic rights and their dignity and we need to do better in New Zealand."

The Green Party and the Council of Trade Unions also called for the system to be overhauled.

After meeting with Sumeo today, Wood told Checkpoint the concerns raised would be treated seriously and the government had agreed to a full review of the RSE scheme, which would begin in early 2023.

"A key part of it will be making sure that the scheme is sustainable, and that we do have good labour standards for all of the workers concerned," Wood said. 

"The RSE scheme is important to New Zealand. It's important for the workers concerned, it's important to Pacific island states, but it must be sustainable, and we must treat people fairly."

The Labour Inspectorate were conducting a full investigation into specific concerns raised around RSE employer obligations with the process expected to be completed within six weeks, Wood said.

Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner

Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner Karanina Sumeo. File photo. Photo: Supplied

A full investigation would need to be undertaken before Sumeo's claims could be validated, he said.

"We have to have a proper investigation into these matters, as the commissioner said to me, she is one of our senior watchdogs in the system so we take the concerns she's expressed seriously but she doesn't have the powers of investigation.

"That's why we need to make sure the Labour Inspectorate and other authorities now thoroughly investigate to determine whether those things are happening."

Sumeo said the RSE scheme was in essence being run in a way that allowed modern slavery to take place and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) had been called in along with police to investigate the concerns raised.

Concerns had been raised around MBIE and the Labour inspectorate's ability to investigate the sector, after it found no wrongdoing in previous investigations, she said.

However, Wood said the Labour Inspectorate had the government's faith they would successfully uphold employer standards.

"They are independent, their role is to uphold labour standards... so they do take these issues seriously and they do provide that client to Immigration New Zealand where they think that an employer should not be employing workers and I have confidence in them to do that if there have been breaches." 

In the past few years, the Labour Inspectorate had recommended against 25 employers being accredited as RSE employers, he said.

Wood said he would also be conducting a review of the RSE employment standards to provide employers, workers and authorities with clarity around the obligations that should be enforced.