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.
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.
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?
2007, this job has been largely left to workers from the Pacific through the
government’s Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme.
scheme was established after a push from Pacific leaders to tackle unemployment
and provide Pacific peoples’ access to New Zealand coin.
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.
takes the biggest slice of the RSE pie (just over 4000) followed by Tonga
(1900), Samoa (1800), and the Solomon Islands (640).
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.
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.
borders closed, businesses are scrambling to fill an estimated 10,000-plus
shortage of seasonal workers across the board.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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
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.
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”.
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
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
have to ask why New Zealanders still aren’t keen on applying for fruit-picking
jobs – even in the midst of a national recession.
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.
the managing director of one Kiwifruit packing business frankly described fruit
picking as “shit work”.
then, are we happy for our Pacific workers – and other migrant labourers – to
do this work?
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
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.
meeting, which the employees secretly taped, makes for an uncomfortable listen.
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.
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”.
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.
to what many may believe, this legacy of colonial exploitation goes further
back than the luring of Pacific migrants in the 1950s and ‘60s.
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
estimated that more than 62,000 workers were “recruited” from Vanuatu and the
Solomon Islands by Australian “blackbirders”, although the true scale remains
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
- Continued tomorrow: Has New Zealand done enough to leave behind the legacy of exploitation that’s defined its past relationship with Pacific peoples.