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New Zealand's Recognized Seasonal Employer Program

November 27, 2018

On April 30, 2007, the New Zealand government launched the Recognized Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme to admit up to 5,000 Pacific Island workers to fill seasonal jobs in horticulture and viticulture. The RSE program was designed with input from growers and aimed to benefit NZ farmers, migrant workers, and Pacific Island sending countries.

In November 2018, the quota was raised to 12,850. RSE guest workers may be recruited from eight Pacific Island countries, from Fiji and Kiribati to Tonga and Vanuatu, and may work in NZ for seven to nine months. Some 11,100 Pacific Island workers were admitted in 2016-17, and Vanuatu was the largest source country.

NZ RSE Approved Visas 2007-08 to 2016-17 (admissions do not exceed the quota)
Year New Zealand—RSE-approved visas Cap
2007-2008 4,426 4,500
2008-2009 7,617 8,000
2009-2010 6,829 8,000
2010-2011 7,619 8,000
2011-2012 7,742 8,000
2012-2013 8,175 8,000
2013-2014 8,415 8,000
2014-2015 9,275 9,000
2015-2016 9,757 9,500
2016-2017 11,102 10,500

To receive permission to recruit Pacific Island workers, NZ crop employers must document their human resource policies, including failed efforts to recruit New Zealand workers and provisions made to house guest workers while they are in NZ. Employers must explain how the guest workers can access medical and banking services in NZ, and after satisfying all requirements they can become a Recognized Seasonal Employer and sign an agreement- with Immigration New Zealand to-recruit Pacific Islanders.

Employers specify how many and when and where guest workers are needed, and provide workers with any special equipment needed to do their farm jobs. Employers may charge guest workers for housing and health insurance.

Most farmers use one of the 20 licensed NZ-based recruiters to obtain their first guest workers, after which they often rely on experienced workers to refer qualified friends and relatives. Private recruiters are not allowed to charge for jobs in New Zealand.

Crop employers must submit sample employment agreements to Immigration New Zealand that specify hourly and/or piece rate wages and guarantee a minimum amount of work for the seven (or nine months from Kiribati and Tuvalu) that guest workers can be in New Zealand. Employers may deduct from worker wages half of the cost of round-trip airfares and must spell out any other deductions for housing and other services that are provided by employers. Employers post bonds of NZ$3,000 ($2,000) for each worker that can be used to return fired workers to their countries or origin or detect and remove runaways.

There were 143 RSE employers in November 2018, including a third in the northern area of the South Island and a third around Hawkes Bay.

There are limited data on the size of NZ's horticultural workforce, but Curtain et al (2018) estimate a peak horticultural workforce of 60,000, including 55 percent local workers, 16 percent guest workers, and 29 percent working holiday makers or backpackers and other temporary migrants. Backpackers are foreign youth who can work and vacation in NZ for a year, and stay an additional three months to do farm work if they work in horticulture at least three months during their first year. Studies find that experienced guest workers are more productive than local workers and backpackers, and more reliable because they are tied to a particular employer.

The RSE has several purposes, including filling vacant jobs in NZ horticulture and reducing poverty and promoting development in Pacific Island nations. NZ exports over 60 percent of its horticultural production, which means that NZ farmers want a reliable labor force and no adverse effects on marketing their commodities from poor labor practices. Many NZ exports go to Europe, where buyers may enforce GLOBAL GAP labor and environmental standards. About 80 percent of NZ horticulture exports are covered by some form of third?party assurance certification program.

Curtain et al (2018) emphasize that NZ horticulture is well organized, with growers working together to support good labor practices in order to maintain and expand exports. The RSE is administered by Immigration NZ, which is part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and attuned to employers, while the NZ Ministry of Labor enforces labor laws strictly, including minimum wage laws.

Evaluations find that the RSE is achieving its development goals, admitting guest workers who are soon more productive in NZ than local workers due to their experience, and raising the incomes of participating guest workers so that they improve their housing and invest more in their children's education and health care. The RSE is heralded by the ILO and the World Bank as an example of a triple migration win, for migrants as well as migrant-sending and receiving countries.

Curtain, Richard, Matthew Dornan, Stephen Howes, Henry Sherrell. 2018. Pacific seasonal workers: Learning from the contrasting temporary migration outcomes in Australian and New Zealand horticulture. Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies Volume 5, Issue 3.

Gibson, John and David McKenzie. 2014. Development through Seasonal Worker Programs. The Case of New Zealand's RSE Program. Policy Research Working Paper No. 6762. World Bank.