7 Apr 2015

Seasonal worker scheme 'very fine balance'

10:36 am on 7 April 2015

The Immigration Minister says he will not extend New Zealand's seasonal worker scheme to bring in more workers from cyclone-hit Vanuatu.

A woman carries bananas found amid the destruction caused by Cyclone Pam.

Allowing more workers from Vanuatu into New Zealand will help them rebuild their country, Labour says. Photo: AFP

Each year, thousands of workers from across the Pacific come to New Zealand to work in the horticultural sector under the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme.

Michael Woodhouse

Michael Woodhouse Photo: RNZ / Jane Patterson

Labour Party Pacific Island Affairs spokesperson Su'a William Sio said if New Zealand took an extra 300 seasonal workers from Vanuatu, it would pump extra cash into communities hit hard by the cyclone.

"The aid that's going through is initially emergency items, which are short-term, but long-term we want to be able to help Vanuatuans rebuild their lives and get back to normality as soon as possible," he said.

Mr Sio said the seasonal scheme was the perfect vehicle for New Zealand to help Vanuatu recover.

"I think there's also a strong desire by New Zealanders wanting to give back something, wanting to help the Vanuatuans rebuild - this is one option they can consider to help the people of Vanuatu help themselves."

People helping out on Makira Island

People transfer water bags to the beach on Makira Island Photo: NZ / Koroi Hawkins

Thursday 19th of March. Farmers from Teoma bush share the last roots from their Kava plantation.

Farmers share the last roots from a kava plantation, after three years' worth of the cash crop was destroyed. Photo: RNZI / Koroi Hawkins

In 2014, the Government increased the cap on the RSE scheme from 8000 to 9000 workers each year.

Mr Woodhouse said the new cap seemed to be working well and he would not increase it further simply as a response to the cyclone.

"It's a very fine balance between providing the extra workers that the horticultural industry needs to deliver in the harvest with making sure that Kiwis are at the front of the queue for New Zealand jobs," he said.

"That's been the policy of successive governments and we watch very closely to ensure that balance is maintained."

But he said there were already 3000 workers from Vanuatu either in New Zealand or on their way as part of the scheme, and efforts were underway to look after them.

"Some have had to return for funerals. We've made sure that those costs are covered through their insurance scheme and that their visa provisions aren't affected," he said.

"We've also extended, for many workers, their five-month stay to a seven-month stay."

'This needs to be planned properly'

The horticultural industry and New Zealand First have also urged caution.

New Zealand First primary production spokesperson Richard Prosser fears the Labour Party proposal could have unintended consequences for New Zealand workers.

"If we are going to increase aid to Vanuatu in the wake of this disaster ... We should perhaps be targeting that aid more directly towards assistance in the islands with rebuilding infrastructure and so-forth," he said.

"Rather than bringing more of them over here to carry out work, which is going to take jobs away from our own people."

Horticulture New Zealand national labour co-ordinator Jerf van Beek said taking 300 more workers from Vanuatu would be more difficult than it sounded.

"It's not really that simple unfortunately," he said.

"At the moment, we're looking at an avalanche of fruit in the Hawke's Bay and definitely we could use a lot more workers - but this needs to be planned properly.

"Because, if we're bringing in [workers] from Vanuatu, these people need a place to stay, the place needs to be vetted, we need to make sure that they're well looked after, so it's not that straightforward."