Five years on, RSE yields bountiful harvest

By Dev Nadkarni

New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme, which enables the country’s farming enterprises to employ seasonal labour on their farms and pack houses from overseas – notably from around the Pacific Islands region – is undoubtedly a success story.

Thousands of seasonal workers from Vanuatu, Kiribati, Samoa, Tuvalu, Tonga, and the Solomon Islands work at dozens of horticulture and viticulture facilities around the country, sending back millions of dollars in earning back to their home countries.

Last month, Vanuatu celebrated five successful years of its participation in the RSE scheme. The Melanesian nation, which, unlike other Pacific Island nations had a traditionally low volume of remittances, has seen a marked increase in remittance inflows since it began participating in the scheme in 2007.

Vanuatu has been one of the most enthusiastic participants with over 1700 men and women currently working in New Zealand hired by more than 40 employers and some 2300 who have worked in previous years. Several workers are here now on their fifth stint and are looking forward to more years of gainful employment.

Over the years, the workers have honed their skills and improved their work ethic to become more efficient. In a recent letter to Vanuatu Commissioner of Labour Lionel Kaluat, New Zealand Department of Labour’s National Manager Emily Fabling said one of New Zealand’s major RSE employers had noted that ni-Vanuatu workers’ productivity had increased each year.

“When the first seasonal workers from Vanuatu began arriving in the small farming towns and communities in 2007, locals thought they were newly resettled refugees from some African country,” says McKenzie Kalotiti Vanuatu’s High Commissioner in New Zealand. “But today they are part of the townscape adding great cultural diversity to the places where they live and work.”

Last month, workers from Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu joined Christian choirs comprising a wide mix of ethnic communities in an annual ‘Many People, Many Songs’ celebration in Nelson in the South Island. This was the fifth year of their participation.

“It’s great for the community to be able to appreciate the cultures of our guest RSE workers, given that they play such an important role in the local horticulture and viticulture industries. It is an excellent opportunity to learn about each other’s cultures and, for RSE workers, to give something back to the Nelson community,” Ms Fabling said.

As well as bringing ethnic and cultural diversity into New Zealand communities, the RSE workers’ presence in the countries over extended periods has helped familiarise locals with their Pacific homeland. Of the increased numbers of New Zealand tourists visiting Vanuatu in the past two or three years, a significant number are from the areas where the ni-Vanuatuans live and work, says Kalotiti.

This is clearly an unintended flow-on benefit of the highly successful scheme, which has been studied widely and is now being emulated in many countries. Australia, for instance, after a long trial scheme that ends on June 30 this year, has announced a new, more permanent scheme and last month began accepting applications from Samoan workers in Apia. News reports indicated that there was great interest in the Australian scheme.

The Pacific Islands Forum’s trade commission in Auckland, Pacific Islands Trade & Invest, conducts periodic financial literacy training for the RSE workers around the country on how to manage their dollar earnings efficiently – transferring money across borders cost effectively, saving both while here and back in their home countries and investing in small enterprises and gainful schemes wisely. Last month the trade commission conducted two such sessions for workers from Vanuatu and Tonga.

Returned workers from Vanuatu are known to have invested in initiatives like fishing boats or buildings for use by their communities and a band of Samoan workers invested in a bus to serve a hitherto unserviced route on the island of Upolu. The trade commission is now looking at exposing the returning workers to small entrepreneurial activity that addresses both social and economic development issues such as food security.

Meanwhile, concerted efforts of the World Bank, national central banks, regional commercial banks and financial institutions have helped reduce costs of money transfer around the region. Fees were among the highest anywhere in the world until a couple of years ago. Though still high in comparison with other regions, costs have reduced considerably. Mobile telephony has recently entered the money transfer business and this is expected to drive costs even lower leaving more investible funds or money to save in the hands of the workers.

The only significant costs that workers face while living in New Zealand are stay and local transport – some NZ$135 a week at the very least, on top of tax deductions. Workers are typically able to save about NZ$8000to NZ$10,000 at the end of their seven-month stint – significantly more than what they would earn in comparable employment back home even if they worked for the whole year.

OLPC criticism lopsided

An article in The Economist last month criticised the global One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project as not having achieved any marked improvements in literacy and numeracy skills of school children – at least in the South American nation of Peru.

As part of the project, some 2.5 million laptops at about US$200 apiece have been distributed to classrooms in 42 countries including some in the Pacific Islands region. Given the results, the study raises the question whether the $200 spent on each laptop computer in an environment where governments spend just $48 on an average student annually is effective use of funds.

While pointing out the lack of appreciable improvement in reading and writing skills, the study ignores a number of other factors that could logically be responsible for low achievement. For one, it would be naïve to look at computers per se as some sort of magic wand to improve such skills. Secondly, properly trained teachers (many of them encountering computers for the first time in their lives) and contextualised, relevant software are critical in ensuring success. In many countries the computers exist without these other inputs.

Speaking about his experience in a school in Oksapmin district of the remote highlands region of PNG, David Leeming, who has been involved with the OLPC project in the region, says on a regional public internet forum, “These places have no timely access to newspapers, no TV, no school libraries to speak of. In short not a rich educational environment.

“These schools now have OLPC XS servers running 24/7 on solar power, containing 40 GB of digital educational resources accessible at anytime by the children and teachers laptops. Children from age 6 are now learning information literacy skills … The XOs are better than books as they also allow the children to build their knowledge using the activities – creative, multimedia, customisable tools to construct knowledge from information both in about outside of class. Just in the area of information access and information literacy, the OLPC programme has a huge impact. It is self-evident. A no brainer.”

Pointedly, Leeming asks another pertinent question: “Where would you place your children at school? Would you think it immaterial whether computers and ICT were used? Why does the question need so much more examination when it comes to the children of other people – poor people’s children in under underserved areas?”

I would think if a similar study in developed world schools was done to assess the effect of mobile phones and social networking, a marked decline in literacy skills would be quite evident, given the ubiquitous coolness of txting, LOL.

First appeared in Islands Business, May 2012