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Seasonal Labour Scheme Will Boost Island Economies

27th October 2006


Seasonal Labour Scheme Would Boost Island Economies

The recent announcement by the NZ Prime Minister, at the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji, regarding a new seasonal labour scheme for workers from six Pacific Islands, was welcomed by the NZ Pacific Business Council (NZPBC). These countries are initially Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu, but it is envisaged that the scheme could later extend to other Forum countries.

The NZPBC Chairman, Gilbert Ullrich, says that “this should be mutually beneficial to both NZ and those six Pacific Islands - as NZ’s horticulture and viticulture industries need a seasonal influx of planters, pruners, harvesters, packers, etc, and a pool of largely unskilled people from the Islands need well paid work and new skill sets. In addition to the significant remittances currently sent by Pacific Island New Zealanders, this could pump a further NZ$30 to NZ$35 million into these Island economies, if the bulk of the net earnings are repatriated back home. However, we must get the scheme properly designed and rigorously implemented, if it is to be a success, and will benefit both NZ and the Pacific Islands that participate”.

The Immigration Minister, David Cunliffe, has confirmed that up to 5,000 Island people will be taken each year, for a maximum of seven months. If one is to do a quick calculation, then at say $11 or $12 per hour, this would (on a 40 hour week), amount to between NZ$57 and NZ$62 million gross for six months work (or about NZ$45 to NZ$50 million, net of income tax and ACC). As the Minister has said, the seasonal workers must not be exploited, and employers are required to provide board and lodgings, and pay half their airfares. Minimum adult wage rates are currently NZ$10.25 per hour, and any deductions for say food and accommodation cannot drop their gross take-home pay below that minimum figure - so between NZ$11 and NZ$12 per hour looks likely.

NZPBC Vice-Chairman, Melino Maka, believes that this scheme, provided it is carefully thought out, should inject much needed earnings into small Island economies, that are often struggling to maintain acceptable standards of living. Maka says, “But to make this happen, we have to see that the maximum amount of each worker’s earnings is remitted back to their home country, thereby avoiding any chance for these valuable earnings being squandered in NZ - which could then discourage the worker from returning home, resulting in family dislocation, and an absence of any of his or her earnings reaching the family in the Islands. Also, we do not wish to see corrupt horticulture schemes (like one in the Bay of Plenty), that short-changed workers (some of whom could have been illegal), and which also defrauded the IRD”.

For these reasons, it is important for mechanisms and/or legislation to be put in place, which :-

1. Registers approved employers and work scheme agents (not unlike that which now applies to Immigration Agents).
2. Imposes strict conditions on pay rates (so there is no exploitation, and no employer is unfairly benefiting from “sweated labour”).
3. Requires some minimum conditions on board and lodgings (and what if anything is deducted for this and meals). Unlike local labour, the provision of seasonal accommodation for overseas workers may be a challenge, so this may need checking out.
4. Investigates the need to put in place robust mechanisms to prevent any overstaying (one proposal is to place a significant proportion of weekly pay into an independent trust fund, which is released and remitted back to the worker’s home, once they have left NZ.
5. Provides some appropriate pre-departure “orientation” for workers, in their home country.
6. Addresses the language problem (so maybe teams of workers from one Island should work together, with a supervisor, who speaks their language, and understands what is needed to do the job correctly).

Too often in the past, NZ has exhibited a tendency to rush into some seemingly “attractive” immigration schemes, only to find they have a number of defects, that smart operators will take advantage of - and then belatedly major overhauls are necessary, because the original intention was abused. To make this work for everyone’s benefit, we need to carefully consider the issues raised above. Any media reports of rorting the system by employers or agents, and subsequent cases of overstaying are bound to threaten the viability of the scheme - which means that the honest employers and guest workers will be unfairly penalised, and the economies of both countries compromised. This has to ultimately be a “win-win” scheme - and if it is successful, then more seasonal workers will be gladly welcomed.


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