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2000 RSE workers given green light

Neal Wallace
The horticulture industry is welcoming approval for 2000 seasonal workers from the Pacific Islands to work in New Zealand, and hopes it may allow the industry to soon manage its own isolation facilities.
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Tim Jones | December 01, 2020 from GlobalHQ on Vimeo.

It has been revealed the Government proposal, which requires the industry to meet the accommodation costs during isolation for the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers, and to pay them the living wage, was a take it or leave it package.

NZ Kiwifruit Growers chief Nikki Johnson says there was little negotiation on the RSE worker package, with industry being advised about what the conditions and expectations were for the 2000 staff.

“The Government was very clear that the workers coming in need to be the most experienced and productive workers, and the living wage is aimed at them,” she said.

She says 2020 picking rates were already above the living wage, with averages of $23 an hour for Green kiwifruit and $25 for Gold.

The kiwifruit industry will be working with the other horticultural sectors to determine how workers will be shared, depending upon peak demand periods.

“And, employing locals will also remain our first priority,” she said.

The 2000 extra workers arrive from mid-January to March and are in addition to the 6000 RSE workers who could not return home at the start of the covid-19 pandemic, and 13,300 Working Holiday Scheme visa holders also in NZ who want to work.

Growers had been expecting 16,000 RSE workers this season.

Primary Industries Minister Damien O’Connor acknowledges timing was not ideal for the summerfruit harvest, but says with those seeking work and a new scheme to encourage the unemployed into work, there should be sufficient workers for the harvest.

“We believe there will be enough, but it won’t be easy,” O’Connor said.

The Government will pay the unemployed an accommodation allowance of up to $200 a week, and a $1000 incentive payment for those who work in orchards for six weeks or more.

O’Connor says the requirement for employers to pay RSE workers the living wage of $22.10 is consistent with Government policy of increasing low wages.

Those with comparable experience and ability should also earn the living wage, but the experience and ability of RSE workers should mean they will earn more.

HortNZ chief executive Mike Chapman welcomed the package, but says the timing means spring and early summer crops will miss out on the extra workers.

He says growers will continue to push for more RSE workers as vacancies in managed isolation facilities allow.

Seeka chief executive Michael Franks questioned why as an employer he is required to pay RSE workers for 60 hours of labour while they are in quarantine, while also paying the $4000 a head two week quarantine cost.

He also questioned why the living wage has been imposed.

“We do already have a minimum wage in NZ, and most RSE workers would have been getting more than that anyway,” he said.

A survey of workers who came to NZ in 2019 revealed returning workers averaged $20.60 an hour, with only the highest paid winter pruning staff getting $22.24 an hour. 

However, these rates had lifted for the season just completed as worker shortages hit home.

Gary Jones of NZ Apples and Pears says the sector welcomes the workers, and appreciates it is a privilege to have 2000 managed isolation spaces devoted to them coming here.

“It is an opportunity now to evaluate industry managed isolation as a next step. If this goes well, we hope this will be looked at,” he said. 

“Australia is doing it already; they have four lots of 150 Tongan workers living and working in isolation, a bit like what we did when we were all under lockdown.”

He is confident most experienced workers coming to pick apples will already have been at or above the living wage minimum.

“This was not a barrier at all,” he said.

The National Party’s covid-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop says such is the need for RSE workers, they should be subject to testing for the virus and allowed to isolate in their own accommodation bubbles like sports teams.

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