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Seasonal worker programme proves a winner


13 June 2008

Seasonal worker programme proves a winner

A new government programme designed to bring seasonal workers from the Pacific Islands to work in horticulture and viticulture for up to seven months per year is attracting people from poorer households as intended.

Temporary migration is seen as a way to relieve labour shortages in developed countries and aid development in poorer countries where population growth often greatly exceeds formal employment growth.

Initial research by Prof John Gibson and Halahingano Rohorua of Waikato Management School and Dr David McKenzie of the World Bank shows the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) Programme, which began last year, has succeeded in targeting poorer, less well-educated migrants from Tonga.

“This sort of programme is increasingly recommended by international aid agencies as a win-win initiative for both developed and developing countries,” said Prof Gibson. “It allows workers to send remittances home and gain new skills without the source country losing the worker permanently and the host country facing long-term assimilation costs.”

The researchers surveyed 450 households in both Tonga and Vanuatu, looking at RSE migrants, those who had applied for RSE but had not so far been recruited, and households where no-one had applied for RSE.

“While our research in Vanuatu shows no substantial difference in wealth between RSE migrants and other groups, in both Tonga and Vanuatu males with lower levels of education are more likely to apply for RSE than are those with more education. And that’s good news for the potential ability of the initiative to improve development outcomes in the Pacific.”

The researchers also found RSE opened up a migration outlet to groups who have been less able to access other migration options, such as the skills and family-sponsored channels or the Pacific Access Category (PAC) in Tonga.

“RSE attracts Tongans who are significantly poorer, less likely to be in current employment and have lower schooling than PAC applicants,” said Dr McKenzie. “Our research shows that seasonal migration can be added to the suite of development programmes.”

However he cautioned that the initial success of the RSE programme required substantial effort by participating countries’ ministries of labour, employers and recruitment agents. “The main barriers to participation are lack of awareness and cost,” he said. “Over time we expect awareness of the programme to grow, but for some countries the up-front cost of participating may remain a barrier unless competitive finance is made available.”

High airfare costs are a particular problem; the researchers calculate the median cost of applying for RSE and for all needed transport is equivalent to NZD$1350 for migrants from the more remote islands in Vanuatu – a lot of money for people whose average monthly household expenditure per person is only NZD$124.

RSE employers cover half the cost of the airfare, and in some cases have advanced loans to cover the other half, but nevertheless costs remain an obstacle to many in Vanuatu. Workers in other parts of the Pacific such as Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands that are also eligible for the RSE scheme also face high airfare costs which may limit their participation.

The next stage of the research will look at the developmental impacts of the RSE on families in the source countries in the Pacific. Other research is evaluating the overall operation of the scheme and the steps taken to facilitate effective recruitment and care of workers while in New Zealand.


Quick facts:

• The Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme was launched in April 2007 and allows up to 5000 seasonal workers to be employed each year to plant, maintain, harvest and pack crops in New Zealand’s horticulture and viticulture industries. Where no New Zealanders are available, employers are expected to first seek to recruit seasonal workers from eleven eligible Pacific states

• These eleven states are: the Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Samoa and Vanuatu.

• Vanuatu has provided the largest number of workers in the first year, with 1600 ni-Vanuatu working in New Zealand. Tonga has provided 700 workers

• The research surveys evaluating the development impacts of the RSE are funded by the World Bank, with support from the New Zealand Department of Labour, NZAID, the Ministry of Labour, Commerce and Industries, Tonga, the Department of Labour, Vanuatu and the Waikato Management School

• Full papers that the analysis are based on can be obtained from the “Seasonal Work” link at


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