New Year border exception for seasonal workers in the horticulture and wine industries

Agriculture Immigration
  • 2000 additional RSE workers to enter New Zealand early next year
  • employers must pay these workers at least $22.10 an hour
  • employers will cover costs of managed isolation for the RSE workers
  • RSE workers will be paid the equivalent of 30 hours work a week while in isolation

From January next year, up to 2,000 experienced seasonal workers from the Pacific will be able to travel to New Zealand to address labour shortages in the horticulture and wine growing sectors. The workers will arrive between January and March next year.

“The Government has listened to concerns raised by the sectors and understands their importance for our COVID economic recovery. These changes will help support their ongoing success,” Minister of Agriculture Damien O’Connor said.

“Horticulture and wine are among our largest export industries, with total exports valued at $6.5 billion in the last financial year. They also employ around 38,300 New Zealanders, many in regional New Zealand. These seasonal workers will enable the work of these New Zealanders to continue.

“We accept they need help to meet labour shortages that threaten harvests this coming season, so we are acting to allow up to 2,000 experienced Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme workers to come to New Zealand from certain Pacific Island countries.

As there is limited capacity in managed isolation and quarantine facilities, entry will be staggered, with workers coming in groups - starting from January - to avoid peak holiday demand from New Zealanders wanting to return for Christmas,” Damien O’Connor said.

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi said the new RSE border exception would also help New Zealand’s Pacific Island neighbours whose economies have been hit hard by COVID-19, as their seasonal workers provide important remittances to their homelands.

“This border exception, along with changes allowing around 6,000 RSE workers and up to 13,300 Working Holiday Scheme (WHS) visa holders to remain in New Zealand and work in orchards, market gardens and vineyards, offers a range of help to address labour shortages in the horticulture and wine industries,” Kris Faafoi said.

“We have also made changes to allow visitor, student and work visa holders currently in New Zealand to apply for Supplementary Seasonal Employment (SSE) visas if they have a job offer from an eligible employer or if the job is on the Ministry of Social Development list. And to streamline the application process, the Government is removing requirements for police and medical checks for these visa applications,” Kris Faafoi said.

“This is the single largest economic-based class border exception to date,” Damien O’Connor said.

“In agreeing to this, the Government has also made clear its expectation to see industry initiatives which will attract New Zealanders into horticultural work.

“We know the industry is working to address barriers to employing more New Zealanders and we expect to see continued efforts to develop initiatives that will attract Kiwis into horticulture and wine sector work.

“The Government will also work with the sectors to ensure there is an industry-wide plan to make sure that the RSE workers being allowed in from January next year are fully employed and are cared for over the entire length of their contracts,” Damien O’Connor said.

Next year’s border exception for the 2000 RSE workers comes with conditions which include:

  • agreement from employers to pay workers at least $22.10 an hour
  • employers will meet costs of their RSE workers’ managed isolation
  • the RSE workers will be paid the equivalent of 30 hours work a week while in managed isolation
  • the countries wanting to send experienced RSE workers under this border exception must have agreed plans in place to take back both their workers coming under the border exception as well as other RSE employees already here from their countries when the 2020/21 season ends.

Minister Faafoi acknowledged that fewer seasonal workers would be available than in previous years but he noted that the Government was supporting the industry to make the most of the onshore workforce.

“The announcement by Minister of Social Development, Carmel Sepuloni, to increase support for New Zealanders to work in seasonal jobs with up to $200 per week for accommodation costs and a $1000 incentive payment for workers who complete jobs of six weeks or longer demonstrates the sort of effort being made to get as many jobseekers as possible to work in the horticulture and wine growing sectors.

“These latest changes demonstrate the Government’s continued commitment to make adjustments to visa and border settings where the balance can be struck to protect New Zealanders from the spread of COVID-19, while ensuring supports are in place to protect New Zealand’s economic recovery and offer employment opportunities to New Zealanders who have lost their jobs because of COVID-19.

“We will continue to engage with the primary sector and others to see if and where adjustments might need to be made and can be made safely in the interests of New Zealand businesses and jobs,” Kris Faafoi said.


How else is Government supporting the sector?

  • Officials will work with the sector to ensure workers are brought in to support regions where they are most needed, and, when the worker is willing, are allowed to move to other employers needing workers.
  • The Government supports industry initiatives and New Zealanders:
    • regional MSD staff dedicated to getting job seekers into seasonal roles
    • actively marketing and promoting seasonal work through its channels to job seekers
    • providing relocation assistance
    • the Work the Seasons website to match employers and job seekers
    • the Seasonal Work Assistance payment, financial assistance for jobseekers taking up seasonal work, when they cannot work due to adverse weather conditions
  • 6,000 RSE workers who are still in New Zealand from last season are able to stay and work in the industry.
  • Working Holiday visa holders still in New Zealand with visas expiring between October 2020 and March 2021 will be, or have already been automatically granted another visa to enable them to work in the horticulture and wine industries once their Working Holiday Visa expires. 1,300 former Working Holiday visa holders have already transferred to the Supplementary Seasonal Employment (SSE) and 12,300 are still in New Zealand on Working Holiday visas due to be transferred.
  • Visitor, student and work visa holders currently in New Zealand, who have an eligible seasonal job offer in the horticulture and wine industry, are able to apply for a Supplementary Seasonal Employment (SSE). To streamline the application process, the Government is removing requirements for police and medical checks for SSE visa applications. 
  • The industry will be required to work to ensure RSE workers are kept fully employed for the full length of their contracts, and address known barriers to attracting New Zealanders to their industry, such as long-term sustainability of roles, transport, accommodation, minimum remuneration and training.

How many RSE workers come in a normal season?

Each year up to 14,400 workers, mainly from Pacific Island nations, arrive in New Zealand to fill seasonal labour shortages in the horticulture and wine industries.

With many workers only staying for part of the season, the highest number of RSE workers in New Zealand was around 10,500 at the peak of last season.

There are around 6,000 RSE workers still in New Zealand from the 2019/2020 season. These workers can choose to stay and continue working. Some will want to go home, however.

How do border exceptions work?

Border restrictions are part of the Government’s strategy to protect New Zealand against COVID-19 and to protect the ability and right of New Zealand citizens and residents to return home.

The Government’s decisions on border exceptions take into account a large number of factors, including humanitarian reasons, reuniting families, economic needs, significant social and cultural reasons, and ensuring sufficient skills, experience and talents are available.

All exceptions must deliver a clear benefit for New Zealand and the impact on managed isolation and quarantine capacity must be manageable.

All individuals still need to meet relevant immigration requirements to be granted a visa.

Class exceptions are only considered where there is a critical workforce gap that cannot be filled domestically, there is no displacement of New Zealanders, and where industries can demonstrate a plan for education, training, wages and other activities that will attract New Zealanders into their sector.

What other groups have been granted an exception so far?

To date the Government has provided border exceptions for:

  • veterinarians (up to 30)
  • deep water fishing crew (up to 570)
  • agricultural mobile plant operators (up to 210). 
  • PhD and post-graduate students (up to 250)
  • people who have essential reasons to travel through New Zealand to the Pacific (up to 100)
  • critical health workers (uncapped, 2,770 requests approved so far)
  • shearers (from January, up to 60)

Why can’t we use private accommodation to isolate incoming workers?

There are only limited spaces in managed isolation and quarantine, most of which are being used by returning citizens and residents.

A key constraint on adding new facilities or creating bespoke MIQ arrangements is the essential workforce who care for returnees. We need nurses, defence personnel and police to run these facilities, and this is a limited workforce.

In addition to workforce supply issues, a small proportion of facilities meet Government requirements. There are a limited number of suitable facilities that are in locations where there is also a suitable hospital facility. New facilities can't be quickly set up for isolation use.