Byron Freeman


Sure as night follows day, or New Zealand follows Australia, the unions here in New Zealand have decided to chirp up and meddle in what was once (and hopefully still is) a very successful programme.  The adage “don’t fix something that isn’t broken” seems to fall on deaf ears.

Unions and economists are joining in a call to overhaul the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme.

New Zealand’s Government announced this month about 2400 more migrant workers will be allowed into the country for seasonal horticultural work, many from the Pacific Islands.

Pacific governments remain keen to get as many of their workers into New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer, or RSE, scheme, as possible

Three stakeholders here – unions, NZ government and Pacific governments. The latter have what is known as an Inter-Agency Understanding (IAU). This establishes how the RSE scheme works between host and sending countries. A key overlook are the unions.

But Unions and economists say fruit and vegetable pickers from the Pacific Islands suffer high costs and poor pay and are often left with almost no money to send home.

Here we go.  Interestingly it’s the same line taken by the Australian unions.  The alarm is that this approach did wonders for the union membership there. The aim is clear – tell the workers how hard and miserable life as a seasonal worker is. Convince them that they are being exploited and that the unions are the elixir. This is a snake-oil sales pitch, but it works.

Let’s look at the truth here.  Following the recent intake of 2,000 RSE workers back in February, the requirements are that the workers are paid a living wage of $22.10 per hour. That is well above the Ardern Government’s trumpeted $20/h. A lot of RSE workers are on piece rates which are adjusted to the hourly rate. Where RSE workers are great is that they repeatedly pick above the expected rates and the real income per hour is typically above 120% of the minimum wage so, do the maths – $26.52/h.  They also only pay a flat 10.5% tax.

Costs:  Compare these with the average New Zealander:  Tax 10.5%. Health insurance – about $20/week.  Transport @ $40/wk. Accommodation @$120-140 per week (includes all utilities, broadband internet). 

So the average seasonal worker earns just shy of $600 NET per week.  The unions are simply lying.

[…] But New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern said 300 workers will be arriving each month from June this year until March next year.

The number of RSE workers to New Zealand has grown from just about 5000 initially in 2007 to more than 14-thousand in 2019 before the pandemic put everything on hold.

Woop-de-friggin-do! What is not said is that, of the increase (2400 allowed in), 300 per month for the 10 months starting this month is more than the 2,400 allowed in – and this out of the normal 14k-plus.  November and February are the biggest intake months, so by November, only 900 spaces remain – not the thousands required.

Typically, most workers come from Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and Kiribati, whose Minister of Employment and Human Resources, Taabeta Teakai said seasonal opportunities are very much in demand because of an astronomical rise in unemployment.

“We are lucky to have them vaccinated by the employers in Australia. And from then on, they’ll be sent to all, I think there were about 10 companies that they’ll be working for, so it was great success. We, you know, it’s matter of um earning income to provide for their families right here in Kiribati,” she said.

This is the point and why the unions are disingenuous here. Simply put, the average RSE worker in a 6 month stint here earns 5-6 times the annual wage back home – IF you can get a job at all. In Vanautu for example, the minimum wage is about $3/h, so one hour on an orchard here is equal to a day’s salary. The unions and goody-good types do not have this perspective.  By the way, the fit, strong, very low risk, mostly below 40 year old RSE workers are being vaccinated here – with Astra Zeneca.

[…] Samoa’s Assistant CEO of Labour, Exports and Employment Lemalu Nele Leilua said her country is also keen to get more workers into RSE as well, because they’re Covid-free.

Indeed. And Samoan RSE workers are great! Note to Ardern – OPEN A PACIFIC BUBBLE. The islands (Fiji and PNG excepted) are Covid free! If it is all right for Cook Islanders, Aussies, Wiggles and Ru-Paul, then it is all right for Samoa, Vanuatu, Tonga, Solomon Islands too. There is no excuse, except CONTROL of farmers and third world countries.

However the Regional Secretary for the Amalgamated Workers Union Robert Popata said what government here thinks is a win-win for New Zealand and the Pacific, is anything but.

Many Pacific workers participating in RSE work face deductions from their pay for a range of costs, including transport, laundry and accommodation.

“Everyone wants to clip these tickets when they come through, and our experience getting told by them is that there’s not a hell of lot of money left to be sent home by the time they’ve paid everything,” he said.

Touché! Everyone wants to clip the ticket. I don’t know about you, but people need to exist. In Australia, they call these items “deductions.” That term is misleading – they are “living expense”. Again in Vanuatu, the costs of living in the capital reduce someone on the minimum wage to make about $50 per week – NET.  Compare this to $600 net in New Zealand. The unions though clearly want to clip the ticket as well. Everyone does. Some call this exploitation.

The Principal Economist at the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research Peter Wilson said seasonal migrant workers are prepared to take lower wages and worse condition, and in some cases, when there’s no fruit to pick – no pay at all.

They work hard. But they might not be being paid what equivalently skilled New Zealanders would accept to take, what are at times quite difficult jobs.”

What bollocks – spoken from an air-conditioned office somewhere! RSE workers are monitored closely by MBIE and wage audits are carried out. The wages are ABOVE the minimum wage!  There is an obligation for RSE to pay a minimum average of 30h per week regardless. No fruit and the worker switches to hourly based tasks or the worker works more hours the following weeks. They work hard – spot the difference folks!  But let’s get one thing straight.  Fruit picking is classified as unskilled labour

But they might not be being paid what equivalently skilled New Zealanders would accept to take.” 

No kidding Sherlock! Please compare apples with apples.

Mr Wilson wants an overhaul of the RSE scheme, considering the stagnant opportunities for migrant workers to upskill – despite years of loyalty – and the often harsh rules imposed against them.

Rules around socialising and drinking alcohol remain restrictive for many RSE workers, some of whom are even subject to curfews.

For good reason! This was the angle taken by unions in Australia. At their inductions (privy only to newly signed up union members) they advise the workers that drinking alcohol is a human right and they cannot be stopped. So what ensues is drunken, disorderly behaviour, property damage, sexual assaults, convictions for DUI, assaults, absenteeism, dropoff in performance… the list goes on.  The damage this advice causes is extreme.

Mr Wilson said the New Zealand government has the opportunity to consider how appropriately the country treats RSE workers.

RNZ

Mr Wilson should ask the workers. They feel welcome in New Zealand because New Zealand understands Pacific Islanders. We grow up with islanders and treat them as equals. This is what workers tell me all the time. They feel included and are often very loyal to their host employer. We love them and they love us. What we do not need now is unions and economists meddling in a scheme that works and makes a lot of money for workers. 

Just how disingenuous is their rhetoric? Have a look at these outcomes from the 2010 IMSED research paper commissioned by the then Department of Labour

Table A: Overall assessment of Recognised Seasonal Employer Policy

Dimensions (Worker Dimensions)

  • Pre-departure orientation: Excellent
  • Orientation in New Zealand: Excellent
  • Worker earnings: Adequate [ED: There was no living wage in 2010 like now]
  • Deductions: Very good
  • Work experience: Very good
  • Relationship with employer: Very good
  • Accommodation: Adequate
  • Access to services in the community: Adequate
  • Support with problems: Poor–adequate
  • Involvement with local community: Adequate

So their talk does not bear the truth at all, statistically or anecdotally. So they really need to back off, toute de suite!

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Unions and Economists Shoot Mouths off at RSE Scheme
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