In Fiji:

September 28, 2022, 10:19 am
Business, Fiji News, World

RSE expansion: Union says employers should be shut out of scheme if they break rules

Story By: FIJI TV Team

Worker advocates warn employers must not be allowed to exploit the next wave of workers in the Recognised Seasonal Employers (RSE) scheme.

A man from Vanuatu works in a Hawke's Bay orchard under the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme.

(File image) Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

The NZ government has raised the quota for the RSE scheme by 3000 this summer - the biggest increase in the programme for seasonal workers from the Pacific in over a decade.

It has also ordered that employers must provide their workers with sick leave.

Amalgamated Workers Union Wellington regional secretary Robert Popata represented seasonal workers in talks with the government about the scheme.

Popata said he did not trust the industry to properly care for the workers.

"There's no secret [that] we reluctantly agreed. We can understand why the minister needed to do this, but we've also been very clear in saying if industry and their employers don't tidy up their acts, then, you know, they need to be dealt to," he said.

Popata believed employers should be shut out of the scheme if they broke the rules.

The system allowed for bad behaviour, like bunking lots of workers in one room, he said.

"Stop buying into [the idea] that Pacific Islanders all want to sleep in the same room, because that's what they do back home. No, it's not. No, it's not at all.

"And I challenge any employer to take me to a Pacific island where a whole lot of people, who aren't family, sleep in the same room."

He would like to see more done to protect workers from exploitation.

The union had advocated for the minimum wage for the sector to be lifted from $22.10 and an independent pastoral care system implemented, taking the responsibility off employers.

Seeing the minimum hours per week increase from 30 would also be welcomed, Popata said.

Hawke's Bay company Yummy Fruit general manager Paul Paynter said the quota increase was good news but it would have its challenges too.

"We have accommodation only for the ones we've previously got, so if we get any increase in cap, we're going to be scrambling for accommodation and the world knows that accommodation is pretty short out there," Paynter said.

"Obviously, there's no time to build anything now, so the challenge here is the capacity of the industry to take up the opportunity."

Substandard accommodation for seasonal workers was not the norm, he said.

He was shocked sick leave, which the new rules require, were not already mandatory.

The programme was critical for the Samoan workers his company brought over, Paynter said.

"So at the moment with tourism basically dead, a lot of people [in Samoa] are saying 'look, you've got to get over there and earn some RSE money if you want to put food on your family's table'.

"It is something that has made a difference to their communities and will continue to do so. They see it as very important and they're very enthusiastic about coming back."

Samoan workers are currently unable to enter Aotearoa without approval from their Cabinet, with the Samoan government halting recruitment while it reassesses the RSE scheme.

Tuisalega Farani runs Hawkes Bay's Samoan radio which broadcasts internationally, into the Pacific.

Farani believed the scrutiny of workers' wellbeing, wages, and treatment was long overdue.

"This is like accountability. In terms of wages, how much the RSE members are contributing to the companies that brought them over, and how much they get each week - there have been a lot of unnecessary deductions," he said.

The announcement had left Nelson orchardist Julian Raine with little time to recruit workers.

"We're already setting up interviews in the islands. We get our workforce out of Vanuatu and Tonga, and to put that in place, we go across and interview people," Raine said.

The increase in workers was just the beginning, he said.

"This 3000 is definitely welcomed, but to get crops off effectively and efficiently, we need more people, not less."

The increase brings the total number of seasonal workers to 19,000 and comes into effect next month.