Workers for all seasons?

29 May 2008

New Zealand's seasonal workers scheme has lessons for Australia, writes NIC MACLELLAN.

OVER the last year nearly 4000 workers from developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region have travelled to New Zealand on temporary visas, employed as seasonal workers in vineyards and orchards.

New Zealand and Pacific governments have hailed the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) program as a great success. Employers can address labour shortages, while Pacific workers have cleared thousands of dollars in just a few months work after paying their share of travel and administrative costs.

But our report Workers for all Seasons?, looking at the first year of the NZ scheme, shows there are a number of areas where a lack of engagement with unions, the community sector and Pacific diaspora communities has led to significant problems.

The first year of the seasonal worker program in New Zealand has highlighted the need for increased effort on welfare services and “pastoral care” for workers. There is also a need to link the scheme to broader development programs in the Pacific islands, to maximise the outcomes of increased remittance flows into rural villages.

After a year of operation, 92 companies have been approved as Recognised Seasonal Employers in New Zealand. Nearly 4000 workers from the Pacific and South East Asia have arrived under RSE visas since April 2007, working in the horticulture industry for periods of up to seven months. Thousands more villagers are seeking the chance to travel to New Zealand on temporary visas.

A key objective of any seasonal work program is to encourage more remittances to flow into rural communities, to fund children’s education, improve housing or start small businesses. Interviews with workers from the RSE scheme show that there are clear financial benefits: after a few months work, some workers from Vanuatu cleared over $5000 after expenses, at a time when the annual minimum wage for an agricultural worker in Vanuatu is about $300.

The early evidence from New Zealand also suggests potential for community links between horticulture regions and districts where workers are recruited. One significant outcome of the RSE program is that communities in Tonga and Vanuatu have coordinated to send a number of workers at a time, encouraging them to commit a portion of their wages to community projects like microcredit schemes for women.

But the increased remittances should not overshadow the significant social costs of temporary migration. Seasonal workers are separated from family for months at a time, which can affect children’s welfare and education and put an extra burden on the elderly left in the village.

The protection of workers’ entitlements, labour rights and health and safety is a major concern in precarious industries like horticulture, agriculture and construction, which often operate in areas with low union coverage, limited government regulation and a highly casualised, mobile workforce. Breaches of labour rights and workplace safety under Australia’s 457 visas for temporary skilled workers highlight significant challenges for the recruitment of unskilled workers from the Pacific, who have little knowledge of their legal rights in another country.

Based on the first year of the RSE program, support services and pastoral care for seasonal workers are the weakest element of the process. Some workers have expressed concerns over poor housing, lack of work at down times (which means no income but ongoing expenses), or employers making unscheduled deductions from their pay.

Workers from the Pacific are given preferential access under the RSE scheme, which began in five “kickstart” countries (Vanuatu, Tonga, Samoa, Kiribati and Tuvalu). But in spite of NZ government ministers stating the scheme will focus on the Pacific islands, more than 20 per cent of RSE workers came from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia or the Philippines (811 of 3923 as of April 2008).

This undermines one of the principal justifications for the scheme - that it offers opportunities for development and employment in island nations with restricted economic options. If Australia is to introduce a similar scheme, it will be important to develop clear policy on whether seasonal worker schemes should only be targeted on small island developing states in the Pacific (especially as Australia has political relationships with countries like Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and Indonesia that differ from New Zealand’s ties to Polynesia).

The Rudd Labor government says it is closely monitoring the NZ program to decide whether Australia should create its own seasonal worker scheme. Prime Minister Rudd is expected make an announcement on the issue at the next meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum in Niue in August 2008.

The New Zealand experience shows there must be extensive consultation with unions, churches, welfare and support services before any program starts in Australia. By designing a pilot program that pays more attention to the welfare of Pacific workers and addressing issues of skills training and labour market testing, we can work to avoid Australian workers in rural areas being disadvantaged.

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