The temporary migrant labour scheme celebrated its tenth anniversary in Blenheim in July 2017 after initially being introduced in 2007 to assist the New Zealand horticultural industry find a stable workforce whilst improving the economies of the Pacific Islands.
However, RSE Liaison Officer for the Tongan Government Sefita Hao’uli believes the time has come to train workers to transition back to living permanently at home after finishing their time on the scheme.
Pacific Trade Invest (PTI) New Zealand known then as Pacific Islands Trade and Investment Commission (PITIC) supported RSE from its establishment in 2007 and hosted several financial literacy workshops in the earlier periods to help workers better manage their incomes.
For New Zealand’s horticulture and viticulture industries, RSE was a godsend. For years, employers had struggled to attract local Kiwi workers to seasonal fruit picking work. The introduction of the new RSE scheme altered the face of New Zealand’s horticulture industries. Together with their imported seasonal Pacific workers, 10 years on, they have turned all their fortunes around.
An initial 6000 workers in 2007 gradually rose to 11,100 in December 2017. The countries signed up under RSE were: Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu with Fiji joining in 2015.
Workers were required to meet health and character requirements and must leave the country after their employment term which can be up to seven months in an 11-month period. Workers from Tuvalu and Kiribati can stay for nine months due to the cost and distance of travelling from their homes.
Meanwhile employers had to be accredited under the RSE agreement.
In an interview with Pacific Periscope in December 2017, Mr Hao’uli said the financial benefits of the scheme had been good for Tonga but with some workers having returned over the past 10 years it was now time to consider exit plans for those who have been in the scheme from the start.
“The workers who are getting on in years will no longer be able to cope with the physical demands of the job and it is in their interest to look at how they could invest in something back at home with the income they are currently earning.”
More relevant training was needed for the next stage with workers going home permanently after having their time overseas.
“It is important for the RSE scheme to develop the capacity of their Pacific workers so that they’re not totally reliant on seasonal work only. There has to be some development at home that they can count on when they are no longer required in New Zealand and not to retain them as dependents,” he said.
With a total population of around 102,000, Tonga is already sending around 4000 workers on seasonal work to New Zealand and Australia each season for the past two years and the demand for Tongan workers continues to climb.
“At some point soon, we will need to weigh up the financial benefits and the effect of having so many of our productive workers away from home for a greater part of the year. There are socio-economic consequences for our population to be considered and research work by New Zealand and Australia is currently under way to assess these issues,” Mr Hao’uli said.
Mr Hao’uli said that the long-term consequences for the Pacific countries is just as important also for New Zealand and Australia.
It was important that families in Tonga are not totally reliant on becoming intergenerational seasonal workers where a father and son became part of the scheme, Mr Hao’uli said.
Because the work may not always be guaranteed and workers in the end will get old, exit plans were needed for workers staying a limited time on the scheme and then moving on.
However, RSE workers establishing businesses in their home countries either all by themselves or as joint ventures with their former employers in New Zealand is not without precedent.
In 2014, an employer and a worker of New Zealand’s successful RSE scheme established the first ever joint venture of its kind in the Pacific. The JV was established on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu.
South Island grape grower company Vinepower’s partners Jono Bushell and Jason Kennard teamed up with RSE worker Seth Kaurua to form the Tanna Famas Company (Tanna Farmers Company). PTI NZ offices and Vanuatu’s Commissioner of Labour together assisted in the formation of the JV.
There are also a few other instances of RSE workers banding together and starting up small enterprises in Samoa. These examples could well serve as an inspiration for future ventures by RSE workers in their home countries.