Time to add value to seasonal labour scheme

New Zealand’s successful seasonal labour programme must move up to the next level.

Dev Nadkarni

One of the more significant announcements during Prime Minister John Key’s visit to three Pacific Island countries last month is that New Zealand will allow more seasonal workers from the islands to work on the country’s farms. Numbers are likely to rise from the current 8000 to a shade more than 10,000 in the next couple of years. This will further boost remittances – the single biggest revenue earner for many Pacific Island nations.

New Zealand’s Recognised Employer Scheme (RSE) is an acclaimed success story that has created a win-win situation for all stakeholders. Launched in a small way 2007, the scheme has grown from strength to strength. It has been studied in several countries around the world as a model scheme in seasonal migration, contributing to economic development in both source and host countries.

One of the biggest impediments in the way of regional seasonal migration schemes all over the world is the fear of illegal immigration – the strong possibility of workers simply disappearing into the countries at the end of their visa duration to become illegal over stayers. However, the New Zealand experience has proved otherwise, mainly because of the way it has been designed, especially with the intention to minimise such eventualities.

To quote from a World Bank commissioned study of the RSE scheme conducted by the University of Waikato, “The design features of the programme and the low rate of overstaying have already led to this policy being heralded as international best practice. The large development impacts seen here should further foster the case for other countries to consider similar policies.” This is nothing short of an expert endorsement of the scheme for implementation elsewhere.

Better productivity, greater investment

Research conducted by New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment in 2012 says that at least 95 per cent of the farm sector RSE scheme employers believe that their participation has resulted in better quality and more productive workers and a more stable workforce than in previous years. Seventy-five per cent extended their cultivation areas since 2007, with 77 per cent of these saying participation in the scheme was a factor in their decision to expand.

Probably the best finding from the point of view of Pacific Island participants in the scheme – Samoa, Tonga, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Kiribati – which have been sending their workers over the years is summed up in this sentence from the report: “Employers universally rated their Pacific workers as dependable, productive and enthusiastic.” (RSE Monitoring: Key findings from the 2012 Employers’ Survey).

Participation in the scheme has resulted in more than just accolades for Pacific Island nations. One of the conclusions of the World Bank commissioned study quoted above says, “Participating in the RSE has raised incomes in both Tonga and Vanuatu, allowed households to accumulate more assets, increased subjective standards of living, and, additionally in Tonga, improved child school attendance for older children. Communities also seem to have received modest benefits, in terms of monetary contributions from workers, with community leaders overwhelmingly viewing the policy as having an overall positive impact.”

Pacific Islands Trade & Invest NZ, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat’s trade and investment arm’s office in New Zealand, which has been involved with the RSE scheme since inception lists numerous small inward investment projects in Vanuatu, Samoa and Tonga as a result of workers’ participation in the scheme. In March this year this year, a unique joint venture private sector enterprise between a RSE worker and his Kiwi employer began operations on Vanuatu’s Tanna Island.

Vinepower, a Marlborough based viticultural contracting company and its long time ni-Vanuatu RSE employee Seth Kaurua have set up Tanna Famas, which will grow and export coffee and high quality coconut oil for niche markets in New Zealand. Likewise, workers from the island of Santo have invested in a community transport and fishing boat, while workers from Samoa have invested in a bus to service a remote area of their island. It is heartening to see a RSE worker put not only his capital but also the skills he has learned in New Zealand into a JV with his own employer in his native country. This trend needs to be encouraged.

Boosting skills, entrepreneurship

Skills development could well be a worthy adjunct to the RSE scheme for encouraging greater economic development in the home countries. For instance, selected workers already in New Zealand on valid work visas could receive additional training in the trades or skills not easily found back home. This is already being done at a fairly basic level. Workers are being given training in financial management, banking and investing in micro enterprises at short workshops. Two and three days’ programmes teaching other skills have also been added to the mix. But it needs to be scaled up.

To begin with, New Zealand’s many government owned polytechnics and institutes of technology could be tapped to deliver customised, short term (six to 12 week long) courses on trades like carpentry, plumbing and building, to name only a few. This could either be done at the site of their seasonal work or at nearby campuses (the government has more than two dozen such institutes scattered across the country, many in rural areas). A selection process for the right kind of students will have to be put in place. Visa issues will also have to be worked out by involving the immigration authorities.

RSE workers who complete the courses satisfactorily have the potential to grow into a potentially valuable human resource back in their home countries. They would have the knowhow to set up small businesses back home, work to earn an income in the offseason periods and transfer their knowledge to others to run a yearlong enterprise, even if they have to return to New Zealand to work the next season. Also, local building skills, for example, could prove valuable in the aftermath of natural disasters – a fairly common occurrence in the cyclone season.

Such an upgrade to an already successful programme such as the RSE scheme would prove quite meaningful as an effective economic development initiative using the human resources route. Indeed, this would be a living instance of the old adage of teaching a man to fish rather than arranging to give him one every day.

First appeared in the July 2014 issue of Islands Business magazine