Speech to RSE Conference

  • Michael Woodhouse

Good Morning and thank you for that introduction Mike.

Thank you to Horticulture NZ for the invitation to come and speak to you. It’s fantastic to be here in Blenheim at this wonderful Convention Centre – what a great facility.

I would like to acknowledge Prime Minister Enele S Sopaga of Tuvalu and the Pacific Ministers from Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa and Solomon Islands. It’s nice to see you again.

It’s a big year for the RSE scheme – 10 years since it was first introduced and what a difference it has made. To the horticulture and viticulture industries, to business growth, to Kiwis looking for work, and of course, to the Pacific communities.

As I stand here today, I can’t help but think back to 2007 when the RSE scheme began, with around 65 RSE employers and a national cap of just 5,000. Today, there’s more than 130 RSE employers and the national cap has more than doubled to 10,500.

That growth is a vote of confidence in the scheme. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this ground-breaking policy has been such a success.

The RSE scheme has been regarded as one of the best circular migration schemes in the world, and without the dedication and willingness from employers to try something new back in 2007, we wouldn’t be here today celebrating its 10th anniversary.

If we think back to 2007, I’m sure many of you here today will remember all too well the fruit that was left rotting on the ground because of the lack of workers available to do the work.

Not only has the RSE scheme helped prevent that, it’s also led to better quality and more productive workers, as well as a more stable workforce for the horticulture and viticulture industries.

As a result, many businesses have been able to grow and expand. In fact, since 2007, 82 per cent of RSE employers have expanded their cultivation areas, with most agreeing that participation in the RSE scheme was a contributing factor to this expansion.

I’m also aware that participation in the RSE scheme has enabled employers to employ more New Zealand workers in addition to their RSE workers. As you will know, the Government is committed to getting more Kiwis into training, education or employment.

I’m sure Social Development Minister Anne Tolley will talk about that more later today, but let me just say that I’m encouraged by the fact that more than 170 unemployed New Zealanders have so far moved to the horticultural regions and taken part in the New Zealand Seasonal Work Scheme. I want to applaud you as employers for helping make this happen.

When we increased the cap, we also set you a challenge to tell a better story in terms of your recruitment, training and development of Kiwi workers and I’m encouraged to see the progress being made in this respect.

However, after 10 years, we need to be mindful of both the size and the management of the RSE scheme.

I understand the theme of this year’s conference is “Resilient, Sustainable, Ethical” which is very fitting. The 10th anniversary provides the perfect opportunity to celebrate the success of the scheme, as well as focus on what is needed in order to sustain the scheme’s success into the future. And I think the ‘Ethical’ element has an important role to play in that.

While many RSE employers may represent the best of the best in terms of industry standards and employment conditions for their workers, there’s no doubt that there are other employers who are letting the horticulture and viticulture industries down.

This has become particularly evident in Marlborough recently with a number of complaints being made to the Labour Inspectorate about employers not meeting their minimum employment standards obligations.

It is simply unacceptable that those employers who breach employment and/or immigration law are still able to recruit from the international labour market and disadvantage those employers who do the right thing.

That’s why in February this year, the Government announced stand-down periods during which time employers who flout the law will be banned from recruiting further migrant workers.

Since we made those changes, 53 employers have been stood down from recruiting migrant workers. However, I’m pleased to learn that only four of those employers are in the horticulture and viticulture industries.

That, combined with the results of a recent joint agency operation undertaken by Immigration NZ, the Labour Inspectorate and IRD, which found that the level of non-compliance that was uncovered was a considerable improvement on past operations, tells me that we are heading in the right direction as far as compliance goes.

But it’s equally important that RSE employers take responsibility for your supply chain. It’s no longer sufficient to think your responsibilities end with your direct employees.

It is in everyone’s interests to ensure poorer performers in the industry, beyond the RSE scheme, do not jeopardize the success of the scheme. Because that success is important, not just here in New Zealand, but in the Pacific communities as well.

The RSE scheme provides the mainly Pacific workers with an invaluable experience and the chance of being able to send money back to their communities at home.

RSE workers contribute more than $40 million per annum to the Pacific and recent surveys show that many workers are sending 40% of their wages home.

The benefit of this is highlighted in some of the stories from people who take part. Whether it be the Fijian woman who put herself through aviation school to become a pilot through the money she made working in New Zealand, or the Ni-Van worker who now owns rental properties and runs a cattle farm from the money he saved. 

While it’s only been 10 years, we’re already hearing that one of the benefits to come out of the scheme is that the children of these workers are being educated. We cannot begin to measure the long-term benefits of outcomes like this.

However, it’s not just the RSE workers that are giving back to the Pacific communities. I’ve heard a number of stories about New Zealand employers going the extra mile for their workers and their villages. I can’t name all of them, but examples include employers such as Birdhurst and Pick Hawke’s Bay, who have sent builders and building supplies in the wake of the destructive hurricanes in Fiji and Vanuatu.

Vinepower’s connection to Ni-Van workers led it to opening an organic coffee and coconut oil business in Vanuatu for RSE workers to have opportunity at home. This shows the strength of the community that has been fostered between New Zealand and the Pacific as a result of the scheme.

So as the RSE scheme continues to grow and we hear more and more stories like these, it’s equally important that we look to the future and the sustainability of the scheme.

The Government is aware that the horticulture and viticulture industries require high volumes of workers for seasonal work in order to continue growing and to increase exports to $10 billion by 2020.

Our decision to increase the national cap to 10,500 in December 2016 shows the Government’s commitment to enabling the industry to continue to grow and maximise export returns, while ensuring New Zealanders also benefit from this growth.

With the number of RSE workers and employers both increasing, we have also seen a recent rise in the number of incidents involving RSE workers which has resulted in some negative publicity.

While these incidents are small when you look at the total number of workers arriving each year, which is equivalent to a town the size of Greymouth or Gore, there have already been over 40 incidents this year – more than the total number for last year and we are only at the 6 month mark.

I know that Immigration officials work with a number of key parties including employers, police and the community to investigate and follow up any incident as quickly as practicable. They also have a zero tolerance for the misbehaviour of workers and any who are found to have breached the conditions of their visas are usually returned home within a matter of days.

Education and information at the start of the process is absolutely vital. Preparing the RSE workers and educating them on their responsibilities for working in New Zealand is the most effective way to ensure they understand the importance of good behaviour and the repercussions of misconduct.

As you know, workers are already provided with a wealth of information before they leave home and on arrival in New Zealand, and an induction programme has also now been developed for RSE workers coming here.

But it’s clear more needs to be done to ensure the message gets home. I know that INZ has contacted all RSE employers to emphasise the importance of pastoral care and ensuring their workers behave appropriately.

The same message has been given to the Governments of RSE-sending countries. I’m reassured by the measures many of them have already put in place such as the Fijian Government’s recent announcement banning workers who damage the country’s reputation from further seasonal work opportunities for four years.

It’s crucial that we all take responsibility for the roles we play to ensure the sustainability of the RSE scheme. The scheme is a fantastic eco-system and is a credit to the strong relationships that have been built between employers, workers, government officials and our Pacific neighbours.

I look forward to seeing the continued to success of the RSE scheme for many years to come

Thank you.