Pacific leaders concerned over RSE exodus

An i-Kiribati RSE worker at Matakana. Photo: Supplied/Charlotte Bedford

One issue that all the leaders of the coalition government have agreed on is the expansion of the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme.

Established in 2007, the RSE scheme allows workers from participating Pacific countries to come to New Zealand to take up roles on a short-term basis.

For the government, it’s a golden solution to address critical labour shortages in some sectors.

Whereas for workers from the Pacific, the ability to earn four or five times more overseas to provide for their families is too good of an opportunity to pass up.

From left to right: Professor Glenn Banks, Dr Litea Meo-Sewabu and Professor Regina Scheyvens will research customary land practices and financial prosperity in the Pacific.

 Professor Regina Scheyvens (right) says those the scheme views as ‘unskilled’ workers can be critical sectors of Pacific countries.  Photo: Supplied/Regina Scheyvens

Everybody wins, right?

Well, not really.

The co-director of Massey University’s Pacific Research and Policy Centre, Professor Regina Scheyvens, says there hasn’t been enough attention paid to the economic and social losses for the Pacific as a result of the scheme.

Professor Scheyvens says those the scheme views as ‘unskilled’ workers can be critical sectors of Pacific countries.

“Many of the people for a start are highly skilled in agriculture and are very skilled in providing food security of their families at home in the Pacific island countries that should not be underestimated.

“If you can actually provide your own family with healthy food from your own land from the vanua and you can also sell food in the market, that can be a good livelihood but it’s also contributing to your country’s food security. We’ve all lived through covid lockdowns and border closure times so we know that [we] can’t rely on food supply chains from overseas …. so food security shouldn’t be underestimated.

When border restrictions were lifted post-covid, New Zealand and Australia took in 48,000 seasonal workers from the Pacific. However, for the islands, there was a noticeable loss of skilled workers.

“At one stage Samoa was pushing back when they realised how many mathematics teachers they had lost to the scheme,” Scheyvens says.

“Mechanics, bank-tellers, airport control tower staff …. all sorts of people.”

Undoubtedly, the scheme has enabled Pacific seasonal workers to provide better financial security for their families. In a documentary series released in February 2022, a Fijian worker based in Hawke’s Bay explained that the scheme would help rebuild his home destroyed by Cyclone Winston in 2016, while another worker from Tonga said he was paying his daughter’s university fees.

However, being away from families for months or years on end has its pitfalls, as Scheyvens explains.

“Now we’re seeing people coming here year after year because of the greater earnings they can have but staying for longer periods because the length of time has also increased.

“So that means children are without key parental guidance at certain times and that is deemed to be disruptive.

World Bank study published last year highlighted the social impacts brought on by the scheme such as increased gender-based violence, relationship breakdowns, and extramarital affairs.

Pacific leaders who have spoken out about the issues with the scheme include Samoa’s Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mataafa who in an interview, said that the Pacific Islands are viewed as ‘outposts’ to provide cheap labour overseas.

RNZ Pacific journalist Lydia Lewis covered PM Fiame’s visit to New Zealand in 2022 where she spent time with RSE workers in Hawke’s Bay.

Lewis says workers and employers were aware of the economic and social strains that the scheme had on their home countries.

“One employer told me stories of how some of their workers came to Aotearoa and they had families back home and then they’d get into relationships with people here and they were working on a community-led approach, working with their local chiefs and making sure that the people that came to Aotearoa knew what they were in for.

“But this is work that was just at in the beginning stages and New Zealand has a long way to go in offering culturally-appropriate support.

“When you don’t have lived experiences which a lot of these bosses won’t have – they may not be from Pacific Island nations or small island developing states – it’s really hard to provide that type of care when you don’t have that lived experience yourself.”