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April 2009, Volume 15, Number 2

Australia, New Zealand: Migrants

Australia, New Zealand: Migrants

New Zealand and Australia have guest worker programs with Pacific Island countries to fill seasonal farm jobs and to jump-start development in rural areas of small island economies. Under New Zealand's Recognized Seasonal Employers (RSE) scheme and Australia's Pacific Seasonal Workers Pilot (PSWP) scheme, poor residents of Pacific island nations are to be selected by employers or local governments to work seasonally in farm jobs. ANZ government ministries devoted to development assistance are involved with ANZ labor and migration ministries in program administration.

The New Zealand government on April 30, 2007 launched the RSE to admit workers from Pacific Islands to fill seasonal farm jobs. The RSE began with workers from five islands, and was extended to include the Solomon Islands in 2008; up to 8,000 foreign workers were allowed under the RSE in the year ending March 31, 2009.

The New Zealand horticultural industry exports almost half of its NZ$5 billion in annual output with the help of a peak 40,000 seasonal workers in March-April; 60 percent are hired in the Hawke's Bay and Bay of Plenty region. Employers who have been relying on the un- and underemployed, students, and Working Holidaymakers (foreign youth earning money while touring NZ) have been complaining of labor shortages, in part because the horticultural industry has expanded. New Zealand employers complained of high turnover among too few workers, which led to losses from unpicked crops and discouraged the investment in worker training needed to raise productivity.

Under the RSE, New Zealand employers must try and fail to recruit local workers before obtaining permission to recruit guest workers from the Pacific Islands, pay half of the cost of a return ticket for Pacific Island migrants, guarantee them work for at least 240 hours and 30 hours a week at the minimum wage of NZ$12.10 ($7) an hour, and provide them with housing, health insurance and pastoral care, such as transportation for banking and religious services. Guest workers must have passports, health checks and police clearances. They undergo pre-departure orientation before departing for New Zealand, where they can remain up to seven months (nine months from Kiribati and Tuvalu because of higher travel costs).

New Zealand employers can recruit Pacific Island workers directly, usually with the help of recruitment agents, or select workers from lists prepared by local governments. For example, the Tongan government used village committees to rank the "work-ready" men and women who wanted to work in New Zealand by criteria such as honest and hard working and with some English. About 5,000 of Tonga's 67,000 working-age adults registered to work in New Zealand in 2008, representing 20 percent of Tongan men between 20 and 60.

Some 600 Tongans were in New Zealand in March 2008. Most were satisfied, but almost 10 percent left their jobs before the end of their contracts because there was not sufficient work. One reason is that many New Zealand employers accustomed to hiring Working Holidaymakers underestimated the productivity of Tongan workers and requested too many, and some of the Tongans who expected to work six days a week left early when work slowed and they were obtaining only three to four days of work a week.

There is a significant Tongan community in New Zealand, raising fears that guest workers might leave farm jobs and become illegal. If a Tongan seasonal worker does not return at the end of the contract, that village is blacklisted and unable to send seasonal workers to New Zealand in the future.

Evaluations suggest the RSE is successful in filling New Zealand jobs, although there have been complaints of workers incurring living costs when there is no work and some employers setting piece rates so low that workers earn only the minimum wage rather than more. Piece-rate workers normally earn more than the minimum wage, giving them an incentive to work faster, but some New Zealand employers had to raise piece rates so that RSE workers received at least the minimum wage.

In September 2008, the New Zealand government announced that RSE migrants would be able to change employers while in New Zealand. One survey found that RSE migrants averaged 17 weeks of work in New Zealand and had average net earnings of NZ$5,700 ($3,400) after paying for half of the airfare and their living expenses in New Zealand. Employers say that, because most RSE migrants do not have experience picking fruit and harvesting wine grapes, they must invest in training, and that 80 percent of the RSE migrants must return year-after-year to justify these training expenses.

Australia's PSWP, announced in August 2008, allows up to 2,500 guest workers from Kiribati, Tonga, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea to be employed to pick fruit in Victoria's Swan Hill region and New South Wales' Riverina region for up to seven months a year. As in New Zealand, Australian farm employers will pay half of the workers' round-trip transportation during the three-year trial. Farmers say they need 22,000 more seasonal workers.

The PSWP will give Australia a more diverse seasonal hired farm work force. Almost 135,000 Working Holidaymaker visas were issued in 2006-07, plus 250,000 visas to foreign students, most of whom can work 20 hours a week while they study. Working Holidaymakers are 18- to 30-year olds who work up to six months for one employer while visiting Australia for up to 12 months. They may extend their stay another 12 months if they work at least three months in agriculture or construction in rural areas (regional Australia), which 8,000 did in 2006-07.

Gibson, John, McKenzie, David, Rohorua, Halahingano. 2008. "How pro-poor is the selection of seasonal migrant workers from Tonga under New Zealand's Recognized Seasonal Employer (RSE) program?" Pacific Economic Bulletin, Vol 23 No 3. 187-204. Hugo, Graeme. 2008. Best Practice in Temporary Labor Migration for Development. Prepared for the Global Forum on Migration and Development. Manila. October 27-30.

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