Address to the 2015 Recognised Seasonal Employer Conference

Thursday, July 9, 2015 - 16:23

Thank you, Prime Minister for those remarks.

It’s wonderful to be here in Samoa for the annual RSE conference. What an inspired choice of venue and timing by Horticulture New Zealand.

It’s fitting that this conference is being held for the first time in a Pacific Island country as it recognises the invaluable role that countries like Samoa and their RSE workers play in the continued success of the scheme. It also gives employers an opportunity to see how RSE workers’ earnings are being used to support their home communities.

It never ceases to amaze me how much RSE workers contribute to their home environments, whether it’s investing in new facilities or upgrading existing ones.

Although it was written more than four years ago the findings of research by the World Bank and Waikato University about the positive impact of RSE on Tonga and Vanuatu still hold true today. The report found that the per capita income for Pacific households with RSE workers grew by almost 40 per cent so there are significant flow-on effects for our Pacific neighbours, as well as providing the horticulture and viticulture industries with the overseas workers they need when there are not enough New Zealand workers available.

Against that backdrop I do want to thank everyone involved for the timely and pragmatic response to the cyclone that devastated Vanuatu in March.

Immigration New Zealand played a key role in supporting RSE workers and employers by facilitating the departure of workers from New Zealand to help with the clean-up efforts back home and co-ordinating the arrival in New Zealand of workers from Vanuatu. More than 130 visa extensions were approved for RSE workers from Vanuatu so that they had the chance to earn more money during their time in New Zealand.

It was touching to hear of the numerous efforts of employers who pledged donations to help with immediate aid and rebuilding of the villages their workers came from. It also vividly demonstrated the huge value RSE employers place on their seasonal workforce and backed up the results of last year’s Employers Survey which found that nearly all of you believe that the benefits of taking part in the scheme outweigh the costs. 

A sure sign of the success of the scheme is the fact that more than half of you had been able to invest in new plant and equipment or expanded your business in the previous 12 months.

It is clear from the evidence that the RSE scheme is meeting the needs of New Zealand’s horticulture and viticulture growers and that participation in the scheme has resulted in a more stable and reliable workforce than in the past. It’s striking to note the high number of RSE workers returning to New Zealand each season, which shows how highly it is valued.

There have been a number of important developments in the RSE space since I talked to you all last year and I want to reflect on them for a moment. You will recall that last year I announced an increase in the national cap from 8,000 to 9,000. I have been keeping a watchful eye on how this has been working in practice.

It looks like final arrival numbers for the financial year just ended will be about 8,500 which is the highest since the scheme was launched in April 2007. This reflects the excellent season in particular for apples, kiwifruit, cherries and grapes and has been a win-win situation for employers, workers and participating Pacific Island countries.

I have been especially impressed this year with how smoothly workers have moved from one region to another to meet changing demand in different areas.

Almost a third of RSE employers are now involved in these joint Agreements to Recruit and the arrangements have worked particularly well in Hawke’s Bay, Marlborough and the Bay of Plenty.

I am convinced that this flexible way of working and matching supply with demand is the way forward in ensuring the continued success of the RSE scheme and maximising opportunities for New Zealanders.

Another significant landmark for the RSE scheme has been the inclusion of Fiji following the restoration of democracy in the country. The pilot involving 30 workers taken on by a group of RSE employers from Bay of Plenty, Hawke’s Bay and Nelson appears to have gone well and I’m sure a whole lot more Fijian workers will come over next season.

In my view the new cap has worked extremely well but my officials will continue to monitor the situation closely. As with every other immigration policy the RSE scheme is premised on ensuring that New Zealanders are first in line for jobs so I do want to reiterate my expectations that as employers you are doing everything possible to recruit and train Kiwis before seeking RSE workers.

I acknowledged last year that for some young New Zealanders there are barriers to employment such as education and skills, mobility, attitude and recreational drug and alcohol use.

I have repeatedly said they are barriers to overcome, not immoveable impediments so it’s heartening that more than 100 of you have volunteered to work with the Ministry of Social development to pilot the New Zealand Seasonal Worker Programme that Minister Bennett and I announced last year.

It’s encouraging to see this positive response to a scheme which will ensure that more Kiwis have access to seasonal work opportunities, particularly in areas of high unemployment such as Hawke’s Bay. The Government will continue to work closely with you as the programme develops but I am confident that in time it will prove just as successful as the RSE scheme.

I’m greatly looking forward to seeing some of the ventures set up here in Samoa as a result of RSE earnings but for now I’m happy to take any questions you may have.