RSE cap increase opportunities

30 November 2023

Following Cyclone Gabrielle, many of the Pasifika workers in the Hawke’s Bay put on their gumboots and mucked in on recovery efforts. Employed in the area under the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme (RSE), this demonstrated their role in the community goes well beyond an employment programme. Instead, after over a decade of implementation, the RSE scheme has become a vital part of our horticulture industry and RSE employees are part of their communities.  

Originally designed as a way of supporting Pasifika workers to earn sufficient wages to support families back at home, RSE has developed into enduring partnerships between individual villages and employers. Skills are exchanged and employees return year after year. New Zealand producers know that to get the best possible workforce they must invest in them – targeted recruitment, purpose-built accommodation and upskilling.

The scheme has been running since 2007 and there has only been minor policy updates since then. In the last decade, the number of employees per year has doubled, with a third of that happening in the last three years. There is the potential for the scheme to be updated to meet the changing needs of New Zealand growers, employees and our Pacific partners.

HortNZ is encouraged by the new government’s promise to increase the number of places available through the scheme. There is an unmet demand from growers and more people want to come from the Pacific, particularly countries that have expressed an interest in increasing their numbers. And this can be done in a way that facilitates increasing wellbeing in the home countries as well as here. This is a chance to be proactive about sharing the scheme rather than ad hoc tinkering in response to bad performers.

The potential in the scheme is in increased flexibility. During Covid and the following years, workers often felt frustrated by shorter work seasons as late starts, due to bureaucracy, were not reflected in later finishers. We have seen examples of workers sitting ready to go in their home country but held up for reasons outside employer and employee control. It does not respect the dignity of the person if they are expected to drop everything and go on the whim of when paperwork comes through.

The International Labour Organisation and the World Bank recognise the benefits of labour mobility. And recognise New Zealand as one of the leading schemes - we do however have areas that we need to improve on. Unfortunately, in the Pacific, it is easy for us to be lumped into the same bucket as other destinations when addressing issues of labour exploitation. However, New Zealand can and should be the destination of choice given there is a broader understanding of cultural acceptance and Pacific communities are able to support their families while they are here. This is an area that sets the RSE scheme apart from other labour mobility schemes – the concept of ‘whanaungatanga’ is encouraged by many of our growers that bring workers from the Pacific sending countries.

Stakeholders are ready to go on this. The promised RSE policy review stalled with government back in April but now is the chance to get things happening before the next significant picking season.

HortNZ has spent time in the Pacific – both on the recent Foreign Minister’s delegation to the Pacific which I attended in April, and involvement in last week’s Pacific Labour Mobility Annual Meeting where for the first time an Employer Forum was held, enabling employers to hear from the Pacific and key partners their aspirations and voice our commitment to supporting RSE workers and Pacific sending countries. New Zealand growers understand that this is a two-way talanoa. We need to look beyond the scheme to the potential for how this impacts the employees’ lives, their communities and their nations.

RSE is seen as an important part of how the Pacific nations view New Zealand. But it is for the government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to drive that relationship. Without government leadership we risk the few bad employers tarnishing our relationship.

The bad media this time last year on the scheme, largely driven by domestic unions not connected with Pacific nations, affected the ability for growers and employees to see positive action to increase the mana of the scheme. Depicting RSE employees as merely cogs in the machine does not give them the respect they deserve or reflect the partnership role they have in growing the horticulture sector.

I am optimistic about the opportunity for a RSE reset. Together with government, we can optimise the ability of RSE employees to transfer skills they learn here to enhance their livelihoods and support community developments back in their home countries. Regular and reliable scheme opportunities will provide employees with the dignity of planning around this opportunity, and for their home country governments to put in place suitable schemes so that they maximise the opportunities when the employees return home.