Wed, Sep 21, 2022 9:55 AM

Listening to the Pacific



By Nadine Tunley  

More than 400 delegates attended the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) conference in Wellington last week, celebrating 15 years of the RSE scheme.

The theme, Voices of the Pacific, recognised the valuable partnership between New Zealand’s horticulture and viticulture industries, the Pacific and the New Zealand Government, and the commitment to work together as one.

Equally, it was an opportunity to consider how we, collectively, can future proof the scheme to ensure everyone benefits positively from the scheme.

Delegates heard from representatives of Pacific nations on how the RSE scheme is of critical importance to their economies, as well as for evolving their own workforces and talent pools.

RSE workers provide the means to support their families and communities. They also gain transferrable skills that can be used to establish their own businesses when they return home.

HortNZ chief executive Nadine Tunley. Photo: Supplied.

Growers expressed their gratitude to the Pacific RSE workers who have been welcomed into New Zealand over the past year.

Not only has the RSE workforce facilitated keeping New Zealanders in skilled, permanent employment, the scheme has kept local businesses operating and ensured that growers could continue to supply New Zealand and the world with fresh fruit and vegetables.

“The workers are family,” one grower said.

The sentiment across the conference was clear: the RSE scheme is a mutually beneficial and collaborative partnership. However, continued success of the scheme will require further commitment and investment.

How do we continue to fine tune the RSE scheme as a world-class labour mobility model that brings certainty to horticulture’s labour needs?

During the conference, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) announced that it will be reviewing the scheme, to ensure the policy that underpins it continues to deliver a win-win model for all.

The pandemic has prompted a reset and has brought industry, government and key RSE stakeholders together, to review the settings and co-design how the scheme will operate in a post-Covid future.

I look forward to being involved in this review with colleagues and growers, to ensure the RSE scheme thrives and develops over the next 15 years.

Covid has changed the world and industries like ours must come to terms with those changes. Within this context, there are opportunities, and the RSE scheme is a good example of something that is inherently sound, benefiting all those who are involved.

Let’s leverage the scheme’s advantages and work together to put it on a firm footing for the next 15 years and beyond.

Being a fair and ethical employer

The success and reputation of New Zealand’s horticulture industry is a direct result of its people.

If our people thrive, so too does the sector.

Unfortunately, reports this week of labour contractors exploiting migrant workers were a violation of the “good employer” standards and pastoral care that industry holds itself to.

The New Zealand horticulture industry has a zero tolerance policy for poor employer behaviour. This disappointing behaviour has a widespread impact on the credibility of the industry and the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme, as well as on employers who, for the most part, go out of their way to care for and nurture their people.

While industry and government are addressing the issue, the case serves as a stark reminder to us all: Being able to employ people from Pacific is a privilege, not a right.

Each and every employer plays a role in protecting that privilege by caring for and treating workers with respect.

Businesses must take responsibility to ensure they are operating in line with legal obligations – including and ensuring that the contractors we engage are operating in accordance with those obligations too.

Thorough due diligence around contractor use is essential. Employers’ duty of care not only encompasses their safety and wellbeing, but is also about creating an enduring work environment, a strong culture where employees feel valued and welcome, can learn, up-skill and thrive in our industry.

We want to see both RSE workers and local employees returning season after season. To achieve that will require a concerted effort from all employers to not just meet minimum legal requirements, but to be the employer of choice everyone wants to work for – and collectively the industry of choice.

The horticulture industry has an opportunity to work collectively to shape a positive employment narrative and to make the changes needed to ensure we are all operating as responsible, exemplar employers.

These Pacific workers are here to learn skills and earn money to support their families and communities back home. At the same time, they support our industry to grow and prosper. They are an extended whanau.

If you are concerned that someone is employing workers who are not being treated fairly and ethically, you should immediately contact the Labour Inspectorate (call0800 20 90 20 during business hours).

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