News Item

Scrambling for work - the RSE scheme

Media 6 Jul 2021

The numbers outside the EFKS church swelled to an estimated 1500, and as time passed, the polite wait turned into a scrum. Windows were subsequently smashed, louvres removed, doors pried open, se'evae kosokoso (jandals) displaced, and serious injuries followed as hopeful seasonal workers pushed their way into the hall, only to learn that registrations had been cancelled.

It was a sunny Monday on 21 June in Samoa, where hopeful people from villages around the island of Upolu had peacefully made their way to the EFKS Hall in Mulinu'u in response to the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Labour's announcement to register for the Recognised Seasonal Employment (RSE) Scheme.

Twelve weeks prior, over 88,000 Samoans had cast their vote in what would be an ongoing political stalemate and it has been more than a year since Samoa declared a State of Emergency in response to the COVID pandemic. In fact, Samoa was one of the first countries in the world to shut its borders to prevent COVID-19 from entering its shores.

Ensuing media and other commentary that followed the RSE registration event, seemed to focus on the alleged disrespect of the people who had gathered and caused wilful damage to property, rather than on the sense of helplessness and desperation for work.

Evidence shows the RSE scheme has been extremely beneficial for the livelihoods of Pacific people but there has always been room for improvement.

In 2010, I conducted research in the villages of Poutasi and Tafua Tai in Samoa to better understand whether the scheme had an impact on the remaining rural labour force, the impact on the family left behind, including the allocation of responsibilities, and the greater wellbeing of the community.

I also questioned the sustainability and or desirability of a scheme that is subject to change at any time should there be changes to the New Zealand economy or political will.

It's been 14 since the RSE scheme started and the numbers have increased greatly, but as a result of Covid, RSE numbers from the Pacific have been drastically and suddenly reduced.

The Government of New Zealand should be asking, "is the process of recruiting RSE workers done in a humane manner? When a worker breaches their contract, is the Government of New Zealand comfortable with the fact that Pacific workers are identified and their misdemeanours and crimes are listed publicly, and in most cases, results in entire villages blacklisted from the scheme?

And is it really a triple win for Pacific workers, their families and New Zealand growers, when an entire village no longer tends to their own plantations or their own cultural duties because all the able-bodied members of their community are abroad?

Now more than ever, Pacific Governments should demand a better deal from the New Zealand Government for the RSE scheme, especially as most Pacific countries are Covid free with a willing workforce.

For years, Pacific workers have accepted the rules set in place by the New Zealand Government. Imagine if workers were paid more and guaranteed employment for the seasons that follow?

As New Zealand faces a current demand for horticulture and viticulture workers, it needs to address the unequal relationship and the power plays that exist in the RSE scheme.

Pacific workers and economies are at the mercy of the New Zealand economy and policy. But what happens when New Zealand comes up with alternative solutions to its horticulture and viticulture resource challenges? And what if unemployment rises and the public sentiment turns on the presence of the a Pacific seasonal worker in the orchard taking a Kiwi's job? Where does that leave Pacific people? This feels like déjà vu.

FotuoSamoa Jackson is from Savaii, Samoa and lives in Auckland. Her background is in community engagement, sustainability and all things Samoan.


Image: Samoan RSE workers in New Zealand. Source: RNZ / Anusha Bradley