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30 November 2020

Who picks the fruit? A look at the role of seasonal workers in NZ

Thursday 5 November 2020 | Written by E-Tangata | Published in New Zealand, Regional

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Who picks the fruit? A look at the role of seasonal workers in NZ
Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme (RSE) workers at a New Zealand vineyard. (Jules Taylor NZ Wine Growers)

The morality of New Zealand’s reliance on workers from the Pacific questioned.

New Zealand’s past relationship with the Pacific has been marked by exploitation, write Litia Tuiburelevu and Hugo Wagner-Hiliau for online New Zealand magazine E-Tangata. Is the RSE scheme, which brings Pacific Islanders to work in New Zealand orchards and vineyards for several months of the year, really progress or just more of the same? This is part one of a two part report – the conclusion will be in tomorrow’s paper.

In less than a week, the summer fruits will ripen, ready to be picked, sorted, packaged and sent for sale in Aotearoa and abroad. But one question keeps being asked– who will pick the fruit?

Since 2007, this job has been largely left to workers from the Pacific through the government’s Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme.

The scheme was established after a push from Pacific leaders to tackle unemployment and provide Pacific peoples’ access to New Zealand coin.

Touted as a “mutually beneficial development scheme”, it creates a sustained labour force for New Zealand growers while simultaneously giving workers (and their families) the chance to thrive economically.

Vanuatu takes the biggest slice of the RSE pie (just over 4000) followed by Tonga (1900), Samoa (1800), and the Solomon Islands (640).

And New Zealand businesses love it, with many employers praising Pacific workers for their agility, strength, tenacity, and quality picking. Now, growers compete to access the Pacific-worker pool, fuelling demands to expand the RSE quota.

As it has with everything else, Covid-19 has led to severe disruptions to the RSE scheme. While 3000 RSE workers have been able to return since the first Covid lockdown, nearly 7000 have remained in New Zealand.

But with borders closed, businesses are scrambling to fill an estimated 10,000-plus shortage of seasonal workers across the board.

Fearing great financial losses to the industry, growers have their eyes firmly set on the Pacific islands, demanding the government open New Zealand’s borders to thousands more RSE workers to fill this critical deficit.

 Time is of the essence. The fruit, if left to perish, could cost the industry around $9.5 billion dollars.

This approach seems logical, too. The participating Pacific Island nations are largely Covid-free, so they pose minimal risk to New Zealand’s elimination strategy. With many of the islands reeling from the pandemic’s economic sucker-punch, there’s the moral argument that New Zealand should prioritise these workers before, say, granting visa exemptions to the designers of a US billionaire’s golf course and a celebrity’s nanny.

But despite these disruptions and potential financial losses, our ongoing global pandemic has also given us time to pause and reflect on the RSE scheme – and to question how Pacific peoples are viewed by some RSE employers and how Pacific RSE workers are being treated in its everyday operations.

As much as we’re supportive of our Pacific peoples being gainfully employed, it’s become clear how New Zealand so often relies on Pacific labour to be its economic clutch.

Think back to the 1950s and ‘60s when the government seduced the first wave of Pacific migrants to the “land of milk and honey”, promising economic prosperity and job opportunities in the post-World War Two economic boom.

While many families were eager to traverse Te Moana Nui a Kiwa in search of a better life, we must be mindful not to romanticise the government’s intentions through rose-tinted revisionism.

Pacific peoples’ invitation to the party was, first and foremost, fuelled by an economic need to fill critical labour shortages in low-paying, industrial jobs – work that was wholly undesirable to a growing Pakeha middle class.

New Zealand welcomed these families with open arms for almost two decades, turning a blind eye to overstayers as long as the economy needed them.

It was a capitalist agenda masquerading as generosity.  Pacific peoples were classified as cheap labourers, “valuable only to the extent that they would serve as physical labourers in our textile, cleaning, meat packing and factory based industries”.

But with the global oil crisis of the 1970s and rapid economic downturn, Pacific peoples were “othered” and imagined as a permanent, foreign threat to the New Zealand economy.

These racist myths rendered Pasifika as parasites on state resources, a viewpoint bolstered by political campaigns characterising the community as violent, belligerent dole-bludgers unable to assimilate to “Kiwi life”.

In the public eye, the Pasifika population became disposable, ready to be dawn-raided, criminalised and deported. They were literally and metaphorically expelled from New Zealand society, only to then be reabsorbed into the same socio-economic conditions, including through subsequent labour schemes.

In the 13 years since the RSE scheme came into effect, there’s been massive growth in our billion-dollar horticulture and viticulture industries – this year valued at $10 billion and $2.3 billion respectively.

Much of this success is off the back of Pacific labourers. Since 2007, the RSE quota has nearly tripled to 13,000 workers per season, and the scheme has widened from three countries to nine.

There’s no doubt that RSE employment has made a difference for many workers and their families and the economies back home. It’s undeniable that remittance payments – overseas workers sending earnings back home – are incredibly important sources of income for many families in the Pacific.

But you have to ask why New Zealanders still aren’t keen on applying for fruit-picking jobs – even in the midst of a national recession.

Although growers are legally obliged to employ a local workforce, union organisers routinely cite job insecurity, shady employers, and poor pay (for what is notoriously intensive labour) as the primary deterrents.

In fact, the managing director of one Kiwifruit packing business frankly described fruit picking as “shit work”.

Why, then, are we happy for our Pacific workers – and other migrant labourers – to do this work?

When the first Covid-19 lockdown hit, thousands of migrant workers, including some RSE workers, were stranded in Aotearoa in financial limbo. While many RSE employees were able to stay as essential workers under an eleventh-hour visa extension, video and audio recordings emerged of alleged worker mistreatment in the Hawke’s Bay, making visible what some might have suspected goes on behind closed doors.

The image of 20 or so Solomon Island workers sitting awkwardly on the floor, their heads bowed as their boss, Anthony Rarere, scolds three of them for allegedly absconding, shows a troubling power imbalance.

The meeting, which the employees secretly taped, makes for an uncomfortable listen.

Rarere’s power trip is palpable through the airwaves, his patronising tone making the situation seem less like an “employment dispute” (his words) and more of an egotistical power-trip by an employer manipulating his staff into a contractual armbar.

Frustratingly, the workers returned home before their claims could properly be investigated by MBIE. Details subsequently emerged about conflicts of interests, confidentiality breaches, and the scheme being run like “Cuba”.

Hearing about these stories of alleged migrant worker exploitation, we couldn’t help but find them worryingly reminiscent of when New Zealand and other colonial powers used Pacific bodies for their own economic gain.

Contrary to what many may believe, this legacy of colonial exploitation goes further back than the luring of Pacific migrants in the 1950s and ‘60s.

The colonial context in which the RSE scheme and other migrant labour schemes operate goes back 150 years to “blackbirding” – the practice of enslaving (often by force or deception) South Pacific islanders to work on the cotton and cane fields in Queensland, Fiji and Samoa, and sometimes further afield in South America.

It’s estimated that more than 62,000 workers were “recruited” from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands by Australian “blackbirders”, although the true scale remains unknown.

While there’s some disagreement on whether blackbirding can be labelled a slave trade, it’s indisputable that thousands of Pacific Islanders were systematically exploited into indentured labour schemes, with many dying as a result.

- Continued tomorrow:  Has New Zealand done enough to leave behind the legacy of exploitation that’s defined its past relationship with Pacific peoples.