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Alleged rape reinforces earlier concerns

Alleged rape reinforces earlier concerns: points to systemic issues with RSE

Chair of the Tonga Advisory Chair Melino Maka today responded to report ( ) that a Tongan man on the new RSE scheme had allegedly committed a sexual assault.

“Sadly this was the kind of outcome the Council had feared would occur if the concerns we raised over eight months ago were not addressed.” said Mr Maka.

Earlier concerns about RSE:

In April and May 2007 the council was accused by Kerupi Tavita, project manager and a number of others connected with the RSE project of being alarmist when it issued a press release outlining a range of concerns about the scheme, especially its lack of real focus on pastoral care and community oversight of workers.

  • The Steering Group for the RSE comprised exclusively of senior New Zealand public servants with no Pacific community representation or representation from Pacific Governments.
  • There was no prior dialogue with the Tongan or other Pacific communities in New Zealand despite an acknowledgement of the importance of these groups in the recent Foreign Affairs Select Committee report into the relationship between New Zealand and Tonga. Yet it is these communities who are expected to bear a large part of the pastoral care burden of the scheme.

  • Most new staff resources within Immigration New Zealand are going into border control staff not other areas such as transition support.

  • There had not been a proper evaluation of the existing Seasonal Work Permit Scheme nor any community consultation about this. This could have provided useful data for the design of the current policy.

  • To date, the Government Agencies involved do not seem open to partnerships with not for profit and community organizations in providing a range of support to workers. This might include social services and legal advice in areas such as employment, tenancy and consumer law which are known pitfalls for many Pacific peoples.

  • The project team do not seem to be aware of problems with a previous Work scheme in the 1970’s

In April 2007 Mr Tavita accused the council of “not operating in good faith and that the motives behind these actions may not be sincere” In an extraordinary email for a senior public servant Mr Tavita refused to meet the council to discuss the concerns as he had early promised and said that he would ensure that the media and ministers dismissed the concerns too. TVNZ’s Tagata Pasifika website selectively published only the response to the concerns-not the concerns themselves. Tonga Minister of Labour Commerce and Industries, Hon Lisiate Akolo was permitted to launch a personal attack on the website with no right of reply by Mr Maka and the council. “Mr Maka’s views has no substance and will not affect our whole hearted support for this project.” “The Tongan Government in no way supports the views of Mr Maka and does not consider his comments reflective of the Tongan we have spoken to here in New Zealand let alone in Tonga.”

Victimised RSE workers unlikely to report other incidents

The Council complained to the Broadcasting Standards Authority but was told it had no jurisdiction over TVNZ’s website. Sadly subsequent events have suggested that there was indeed real substance to the councils concerns. Given the low incidence of reporting violence and sexual assault to police in Tonga and isolation of the workers in question, the council is concerned that other incidents against fellow RSE workers may simply have gone unreported.

In fact Mr Maka understands that there were a range of unsavoury incidents under the previous Seasonal Work Permit Pilot involving drunkenness due to boredom and isolation, poor pay and conditions and several cases in which workers seriously damaged their sub standard accommodation in protest. Without condoning such actions the Council believes that the failure to consider its concerns has contributed to these problems.

Predictable risk factors:

Mr Maka said that taking Tongan people from poor rural backgrounds, most of whom are unlikely to have travelled before to New Zealand and putting them into isolated rural settings without church or cultural networks, with alcohol as the default release mechanism and without real support is a recipe for disaster. The Pacific Division appears to wants the community organisations for endorsement but not as genuine partners in the design of the scheme. Some resources should have been made available for a basic safety net of social services.

“The Department cannot say that these problems were unforeseen” said Mr Maka, “we are looking at a tragic rerun of events under the infamous 1970 Tongan work scheme and an escalation of danger signs that were swept under the carpet from the seasonal work permit scheme.”

Unpaid public holiday pay

The council is also concerned that the RSE scheme, and seasonal work permits scheme before it, breached the provisions of the holidays act for workers working on public holidays. Few if any are paid on public holidays or have been paid time and half, paid for the day off, or given a paid day in lieu of they work them. The unpaid entitlements may already be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Other problems with Pacific Division

There have also been recent signs of other serious problems with the Pacific Division of the Department. As the Tongan Advisory Council pointed out before the Transport and Industrial Relations Select Committee recently the Pacific Divisions breaches of policy and fairness requirements in the residual places residence category have led to an unprecedented 75% success rate in appeals from such applications that Residence Review Board, double the normal rate of successful appeals. Some of the comments from the usually reserved Board have been scathing of the Divisions blatant breaches of policy and procedure.

“The response seems to be more media management and spin instead of acknowledging a serious problem” said Mr Maka. The concern is that without legal aid or other advocacy many hundreds of other applicants may have been wrongly refused residence without knowing how to appeal. The Department’s ongoing refusal to fund basic advocacy for Pacific people means that for most avenues of redress such as the Ombudsmen or the Residence Review Board might as well be located at Scott Base Antarctica because they are completely out of reach.

Need for an immigration commissioner and independent inquiry

Then council is calling for the establishment of an independent immigration commissioner with real legal “teeth” to independently investigate and report on these issues with advocates to assist vulnerable people to make complaints.

In the meantime it is calling on the Government to launch an independent inquiry into the activities of the Pacific Division’s administration of both the residual places and RSE categories.


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