Speech at the 16th annual RSE Conference

Foreign Affairs

Tēnā koutou katoa; Talofa lava; Kia orana; Fakaalofa lahi atu; Mālō ē lelei; Ni sa bula vinaka; and warm Pacific greetings.

Distinguished High Commissioners; Pacific and Australian government representatives; partners in industry; employers; government officials; friends. It is my pleasure to join you virtually at the 2023 RSE Conference.

This conference is a valuable opportunity to shine a light on the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme, something which is central to our relationships in the Pacific and has delivered tremendous benefits over the last 16 years.

The scheme has been transformative for both the horticulture and viticulture industries in New Zealand. We’ve enabled a reliable, experienced work force for peak season labour demand, and seen significant growth as a result.

The growth of these sectors has also led to the creation of thousands more seasonal and permanent jobs for New Zealanders.

I know significant effort is being undertaken across government and industry to attract more Kiwis – with efforts focused on more training opportunities, improvements to workplace conditions, and strategies to consider longer-term challenges.

However, the very nature of seasonal work means that RSE workers will remain essential to the success of the horticulture and viticulture workforce.

Reflections on 2022-23

When reflecting on the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am particularly proud that we were able to continue operating RSE through the pandemic and border challenges.

This was a huge undertaking, and a real achievement. It required all involved to play their part under pressure. 

I want to thank both the horticulture and viticulture industry for the role you have played, and the dedication of Pacific partners to facilitate worker flows to New Zealand.

The re-opening of New Zealand’s border in July 2022 paved the way for the full resumption of the RSE scheme. Since then, we have seen the largest number of RSE workers travel to New Zealand since the scheme’s inception.

This year has not been without its challenges though.

When Cyclone Gabrielle hit the Tairāwhiti Gisborne and Hawke's Bay during the critical harvest period for employers, workers and the community, the regions were about to commence their peak harvest period. No one will forget the images of Samoan and Tongan RSE workers seeking safety from the rising floodwaters on their rooftops.

In responding to the cyclone, we drew on lessons from the pandemic response. Severe flooding caused the displacement of around 800 RSE workers from their accommodation. Collaboration across a wide range of stakeholders, flexibility, and a focus on safety and well-being were critical to the response.

In particular, the support provided by the Pacific communities highlighted the important role they play in the RSE eco-system. Again, this was a true demonstration of the partnership that lies at the heart of the RSE scheme.

New Zealand’s Pacific Resilience approach and labour mobility

Resilience, the ability to recover quickly from difficulties, is central to our Pacific engagement. In our region we face challenges to our resilience in many forms - global economic downturns, geo-strategic sharpening, pandemics, and climate change, which remains the greatest threat to life and livelihoods in the Pacific.  That’s why at least 50 percent of New Zealand’s International Climate Finance of $1.3 billion will be directed at the Pacific.

In line with our Pacific Resilience approach, New Zealand supports Pacific countries to generate economic development that is inclusive and sustainable. Partners have identified industry diversification, export market access, digital transformation, and foreign investment as key priorities for economic development.

The Pacific’s challenges require ecosystem-wide response. New Zealand sits within that eco-system. So do communities, NGOs, businesses and religious groups. More than 30 New Zealand Government agencies engage substantially in the Pacific. So much of the Pacific Resilience approach starts with our agencies. We are connected by the challenges to planet and people across a shared Blue Ocean Continent. 

I have been privileged in my capacity as Associate Minister for Foreign Affairs to have been able to travel to a number of Pacific countries this year. While I have observed these challenges, I also identified great opportunities and hope for the future. From a primary school in Honiara, the University of the South Pacific campus in Suva to a High School in Nuku’alofa – the vision and talent of our young people shone through.

My visits have reinforced how deeply the Pacific matters to New Zealand – our identity, prosperity and security are intertwined through deep cultural, people to people, historical, and economic links. Here in New Zealand, workers from the Pacific directly contribute to New Zealand’s economic, social and cultural fabric.

And back home in the Pacific, remittances sent back make a direct contribution to the economic resilience of households and supports improvements in living standards. Money earned through seasonal work is now factored into the lives of many families.

World Bank global remittance data shows significant growth in Tongan remittance inflows, with personal remittance flows into Tonga growing from $119 million in 2010 to an estimated $402 million in 2022. Inflows to Solomon Islands have almost tripled in the same period from $22 million to $82 million in 2021, although there is a predicted dip to US 40mn in 2022. These figures are attributed to the growth of labour mobility opportunities in Australia and New Zealand.

We also recognise that the landscape is changing. More Pacific people are taking up employment opportunities in New Zealand and Australia than ever before. Some countries are grappling with the domestic implications of this – seeking to strike a balance between the benefits brought by remittances and their own domestic workforce needs. Others are seeking increased opportunities, as a buffer to concerns about unemployment.

As we work toward a resilient Pacific region, it’s crucial that migration and labour mobility initiatives are well designed, managed and supported. We want to see the benefits maximised, and negative impacts mitigated.

We are strong supporters of the regional architecture that enables Pacific responses to Pacific concerns.  New Zealand contributes to regional bodies such as the Pacific Islands Forum, and I am pleased at the progress we are making towards our commitments under PACER Plus and the Arrangement on Labour Mobility.

PACER Plus is about delivering more growth and higher living standards across the Pacific. This will only happen if the region’s workforces are able to obtain the skills and experience they need.

New Zealand’s values guide how we partner and engage with the Pacific. At the core of our Pacific Resilience Approach is partnership; how New Zealand works with Pacific partners will continue to be as important as what we do. Our values light our path towards the outcomes we seek through our partnerships in the Pacific – foreign policy, development, security, economic and trade.

I wholeheartedly see this applying to labour mobility. New Zealand’s next-generation approach to labour mobility is informed by our values and our ongoing discussions with Pacific partners. Six principles help guide New Zealand’s labour mobility efforts.

We want our circular labour mobility programmes to be driven by and aligned to Pacific partners’ own aspirations, recognising that countries are at different stages and a one-size fits all approach can not apply.

Skills and training are key. We will continue to work with our partners to understand their priorities for the skills, qualifications and experience needed to build long-lasting economic and social resilience. This will help us to ensure opportunities are equitable, sustainable and development-driven – and have impact back in Pacific countries.

A good example of this in action is our RSE worker training programme, Vakameasina, which offers a range of training opportunities to workers, from literary and numeracy-focused programmes to practical training in construction, hospitality and business development. Vakameasina has partnered with the New Zealand and Australian co-funded Yumi Growem [You-me Grow-em] business incubation programme in Vanuatu, which is supporting returning seasonal workers with training, coaching and financial support to achieve their goals.

Our approach puts worker well-being front and centre. One good thing out of COVID is that it elevated for us all the importance of worker wellbeing and health, and the need to apply a cultural lens. This also means considering the needs of families and communities, to ensure negative impacts of labour mobility are mitigated.

To achieve this, we as a region need to ensure collective responsibility. It’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure labour mobility support is delivered in a coordinated and effective way.  This includes partnering more closely with Australia and other regional partners on capacity support and institutional strengthening.

And it means partnering closely with yourselves: the industry stakeholders, employers, here today, to deliver this approach. We know that stronger, more sustainable outcomes are realised through discussion, shared understanding, and taking account of a range of diverse perspectives.

To end

We are all here today because we are committed to the long-term success of the RSE scheme. In the spirit of theme of this conference – ‘Talanoa’ – I encourage you to continue you to listen to your workers, discuss their needs and their communities’ needs, and to strengthen these critical connections.

The challenges of the past few years have shown us what is possible when we work collaboratively. Together, we can ensure the RSE scheme continues to deliver the “triple win” for employers, workers and Pacific countries.

Nō reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa