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Woodhouse: Recognised Seasonal Employer Conference

Michael Woodhouse

27 June, 2013

Address to the 2013 Horticulture New Zealand Recognised Seasonal Employer Conference

I’d like to welcome all the conference participants especially those who travelled from outside Wellington. I am very aware of the efforts you made to take time out from your busy work schedules and family lives to be here. Good morning everyone.

Ladies and Gentlemen. It is my pleasure and honour to be here today and it is timely for me as Minister of Immigration to be addressing your conference, so thank you Peter and Geoff for inviting me.

The theme of this conference is New Zealanders first – which is a sentiment I could not agree more with. It is an appropriate theme because Horticulture and Viticulture industries provide significant job opportunities for New Zealanders, and drive growth for the economic future of New Zealand. I believe the Recognised Seasonal Employer policy has contributed significantly to this.

I would like to acknowledge those who were involved in the development of the RSE policy from the start. You should feel proud of what has been achieved and note how important you all are to the New Zealand economy.

Later, I will give you the Government’s stance on employment and productivity, and as Minister for Immigration I would like to further discuss with you some of the challenges and opportunities of the RSE scheme. I am particularly keen to focus on best practice in industry and the importance of on-going collaboration and communication so that well-informed decisions can be made by all parties – both employers, RSE sending countries and the Ministry.

I commend the outstanding work of the Horticulture New Zealand staff, in particular Jerf Van Beek, and supporters, who have worked to make this event possible each year. Planning for such an event does not just happen overnight, so thank you.

Today is a great opportunity for discussions, and to take note of the work done so far as we move towards the seventh season of the RSE scheme.

Let me congratulate you on the tremendous amount of work you have put into making RSE successful, including pastoral care improvements, organising training and your participation in forums such as this. Your role as employers, advocates, partners and agents has ensured the success of this policy and has made a huge contribution to our New Zealand economy, to the RSE countries and to the workers themselves.

It is fair to say that achieving the growth in the horticulture and viticulture industries to date would not have been possible if the RSE policy had not existed. Many of you will agree that this policy has significant benefits to everyone involved in it.

The RSE policy has also brought benefits to New Zealanders by way of improving employment practices and working conditions in seasonal work. It has also enabled employers to have the confidence to continue operating, to expand and invest in their business and thus provide opportunity for more permanent fulltime jobs for New Zealanders. I often hear employers say “If RSE stopped I would close the gates or shut up shop”. And there are numerous examples of RSE providing the certainty needed to plant new blocks. This is precisely the sort of outcome this Government is seeking.

I am very aware of the various challenges faced by the sector. Particularly by the Kiwifruit industry with the spread of PSA that has affected many areas in the Bay of Plenty. PSA has certainly tested growers’ strength and fortitude for some considerable time. Though I understand there is, at last, light at the end of the tunnel.

Some of your regions have also suffered considerably from the drought while other areas have received significant amounts of rain. There have been delays in some crops being ready to harvest, and then pressure to pick and pack all the crops at the end of the season. During these difficult times I am aware that industry gets together to find solutions and co-ordinate support for those that need it. This demonstrates for me the collective commitment you all have to ensuring better outcomes for those in your sector.

We know that the horticulture and viticulture industries are growing and that requests for RSE workers are increasing each year. We know that the 2013 year, despite the challenges of drought and flood, was a vintage year for apples and grapes, seeing an unprecedented number of RSE workers enter New Zealand. We know that kiwifruit numbers remain low due to PSA, but new varieties have been planted and the industry is forecasting recovery within the next three years.

What we do not know is what the next two, five, or ten years will look like for the sector’s labour demands. What does the industry need to do to prepare? What does it need from the government to support this growth?

While exports are a large part of the government’s growth agenda, improving productivity is also a focus. Immigration policy is just part of the solution; employers need to be considering a range of options to improve their productivity in getting their produce to market. I know you are looking at your automation and quality control processes and not just relying on the labour market, and specifically this Scheme.

RSE policy is about New Zealanders first, and the Government is committed to this. Part of putting New Zealanders first is being able to demonstrate how, as an employer and as an industry, you are planning to engage and train more New Zealanders for the sector. We know this is already happening with some businesses offering training programmes for New Zealanders, and other businesses that as a result of having access to a reliable workforce have grown and established more fulltime permanent positions that are now filled by New Zealanders.

A long-term plan would allow this to continue by determining what portion of future labour demands could be filled by New Zealanders, through training and recruitment, and what portion will need to be supplied through RSE or other labour supply sources. It would also allow the Government to plan accordingly to support the industry.

I have heard so many positive stories about RSE. About getting reliable workers at the right time and the commitment these workers brought. I have also heard of your concerns that employing overseas workers can be costly but are essential to your business. A business where timing, consistency and reliability are everything.

The industries have significant growth aspirations to reach by 2020. To achieve growth, continued confidence of labour supply is a must. To determine what that demand looks like requires good data and intelligence. Our Ministry is looking forward to working with industry to determine production growth, labour demands going forward, and ways that labour may be supplied. Once that picture is clearer the discussion around the “National Cap” will be much more meaningful.

In spite of the achievements that RSE has made in supplementing labour demand, in the current economic climate, we have to consider how we can prioritise employing New Zealanders first.

This Government has always taken the view that we should demonstrate a duty of care for New Zealanders first. Our overarching goal is for New Zealand to prosper. To make that happen, we need productive, internationally-competitive businesses with access to a growing workforce of employees. Let’s do that by putting kiwis first before we look elsewhere.

Staff in the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment will continue to work closely with the Ministry of Social Development and you, to ensure that the RSE scheme gives New Zealanders the first opportunities for employment.

Visas will not be given where New Zealanders are available to work and I will be holding the Ministry to account on this and it is their job, along with Ministry of Social Development, to call you, the employers, to account also.

We all have an obligation to make every effort to get unemployed New Zealanders into available jobs and to ensure you are provided with a sustainable labour supply. I want to stress here that we are making some challenging decisions to reduce the overall unemployment statistics. But we need to work together to make this happen.

I believe your sector is a major driver of economic growth. Building a more competitive and productive New Zealand economy is one of the Government’s priorities. Looking ahead, the Government’s Business Growth Agenda will continue that momentum particularly in innovation.

I am pleased to note that there has been a steady rise in local kiwis taking up the jobs in the horticulture and viticulture sector. The Ministry of Social Development reports increased vacancy listings by RSE employers across the regions, lowering unemployment, and I want to thank those of you who are proactive in working with Iwi and other community groups to give New Zealanders first priority for work.

RSE has come a long way since was launched in 2007 – in the early days there were many challenges – it was a struggle to find workers to harvest in a timely fashion. The focus was on how the industry was going to harvest – rather than on the quality of the harvest. Today the industry has matured to focusing on the quality of the harvest rather than required labour.

Before RSE, the industry was looking at significant financial loses - that is no longer the future – the industry has gone from strength to strength and long may it continue.

On Sunday I announced measures to combat the exploitation of migrant workers, and I make it clear that unlawful and exploitative behaviour will not be tolerated in New Zealand. These measures include prison sentences, hefty fines, and in some cases deportation back to their country of origin. I am hoping that these changes will encourage victims of exploitation to come forward, knowing that they will have the opportunity to remain in New Zealand while they apply for a new visa.

Unfortunately, migrant exploitation is known to widely occur in the Horticulture and Viticulture sector, which makes it more difficult for honest and lawful employers to be competitive in the marketplace. RSE employers face a higher level of scrutiny of their employment practices and are held to a higher standard in order to participate in RSE.

Despite this, 100% of respondents to last year’s RSE employer survey stated that the benefits of participating in RSE outweigh the costs. This is a significant improvement on 2008 in which only 57 per cent of respondents felt this way.

The results show that most employers have enjoyed better quality, more productive workers and a more stable workforce. As I have noted, many of you have said that RSE workers have helped your business to expand.

RSE employers show the rest of the sector what is possible when you improve the level of pastoral care and build relationships with your workers. This should be every employer’s attitude whether their workers are from New Zealand or from overseas.

The whole of government response to combating migrant exploitation, and MBIE’s Labour Inspectorate and Immigration New Zealand joint enforcement actions targeting the fishing, hospitality, horticulture and viticulture industries, will help level the playing field and will make it easier for you to do business. I encourage you, Hort NZ and the sector more widely to continue working towards improving employment practices, knowing that the Government supports you in your endeavours.

This Government is focussed on promoting economic growth – on creating new job opportunities and increasing export earnings. As Minister of Immigration, my number one priority has been to ensure Immigration is contributing to the Government’s Business Growth Agenda. One example of this is helping you to find the skilled workers required to improve productivity if there are no suitably qualified New Zealanders available.

The RSE policy provides confidence in workforce supply and is a vehicle for industry growth. The Government has a continuing commitment to the RSE policy and I have to say that I am proud to lead this scheme for Government which meets a very real demand for everyone in it.

Part of this Government’s plan to lift New Zealand’s economic performance is to see the rate of unemployment decrease. The Government and I are committed to this goal. It is about building a more productive and competitive economy that supports more jobs, higher incomes and opportunities for New Zealanders. Immigration plays a big part in helping to drive that plan.

Your industry has an important part to play and RSE is a policy that supports growth leading to more opportunities for New Zealanders. I am determined to work with you to get the numbers of workers you need in high producing seasons.

I am determined to build clear and sustainable relationships and I am committed to continue working in partnership with you to grow your industry and find long term solutions to your industry labour needs. Let’s build a strategy together to make sure that your industry labour needs are met primarily by New Zealanders.

In closing, I’d again like to commend the contribution you make to the success of the RSE policy and New Zealand economy. RSE has certainly provided a real opportunity to develop solutions tailored to your sector’s needs. I’d also like to encourage you in your stewardship role to develop and share innovative and workable solutions that deliver improvements to the RSE scheme and to your sector.

I am confident that RSE will continue to make an important contribution to the New Zealand economy and I look forward to working with you to ensure its on-going stability, and to support RSE initiatives that will provide opportunities for New Zealanders.

The success of the RSE policy has formed solid relationships with RSE sending countries but I would like to see a further development of strong and productive relationships between the horticultural industry and New Zealand communities. I have heard wonderful stories about what RSE workers’ use their earnings for.

I had the pleasure of meeting with the Honourable Lord Vaea, the Minister for Internal Affairs from the Kingdom of Tonga in May. Lord Vaea spoke about a group of men who returned to their village after their time working in New Zealand, pooled their earnings and built a new wharf for their village – providing much easier access and opening them up to new trade. A real example of the tangible benefits the policy provides to overseas workers, their communities and countries. He also talked about the great discipline and work ethic that his people were taking back to their home villages and passing onto their wider families and children.

The challenge ahead is for our own New Zealand workers to tell their story, and I count on you to make this happen. I ask that each of you continue to view the challenges that come your way as opportunities to grow and develop.

I recognise this as a partnership exercise and I require our government senior officials to continue working cooperatively with you to ensure that your service needs are met. I also look forward to seeing good things to come from your industry in putting kiwis first.

So I welcome the launch of this RSE Employers’ Conference and again congratulate the team who have made it a reality. I wish you every success for your conference.

Thank you. I am happy to take a few questions.

ENDS


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