I was really pleased to see the investigation by TVNZ’s Q+A looking into the issue of seasonal migrant workers in the wine industry in Marlborough over the weekend. I’ve felt uneasy about the Recognised Seasonal Employment (RSE) scheme since its inception about 10 years now because I worried about the vulnerability of the people coming here to work.
Background to RSE
The scheme basically allows employers who can’t find enough New Zealand workers to ‘import’ seasonal workers from Kiribati, Tuvalu, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands who are issued with visas for 7 to 9 months.
When it was first introduced in 2007 the country had the lowest unemployment rate for several decades. The scheme was seen as a way to help the Pacific island countries as it meant that workers could send money to their country to support their families and communities. There were around 5000 workers involved in that first year and their conditions of work were overseen by the labour inspectorate and compliance team of the Department of Labour.
Today the unemployment rate is 5.2%. The RSE numbers have increased to up to 10,500 and due to the government’s drastic cuts to the public service, the labour inspectorate has shrunk so compliance oversight is haphazard. In the Marlborough region where thousands of RSE workers are employed in the wine industry, there is no labour inspector. The nearest one is based in Nelson – about a three-hour drive away.
The Marlborough Wine Workers
The Q+A investigation revealed that there are NZ workers keen to work in the agricultural sector but also concern that wages are being driven down by the manipulation of the RSE scheme. When I visited Steve McManus from the Amalgamated Workers Union in Blenheim last year he explained that the employers of RSE workers in the Marlborough wine industry paid them in piece rates, relying on that to bring the worker’s income up to and above the statutory minimum wage. It was all but impossible to check wages and conditions or unionise RSE workers as they did not want to complain and risk the shameful prospect of being sent back to their villages. The TVNZ investigation revealed that for a group of about 50 RSE workers the wage has slipped to well below and the labour inspectorate are now investigating.
To be fair, the wine industry is not keen to see their products sullied by the claim of labour abuses and support stricter penalties on companies that do abuse RSE workers. However, they should take more oversight of the working conditions of the people they contract to do the work and insist on paying them a living wage. A fair wage might also make the work attractive to those 139,000 currently unemployed.
We also need better oversight of both the scheme and the living and working conditions of the RSE workers. I support a collective bargaining regime for industries that utilise the RSE scheme and union membership as a key mechanism for providing worker protection. And we also need better monitoring and compliance by the labour inspectorate, who need to be resourced adequately to do the job.