Seasonal workers programme revived in five weeks

Samoan seasonal workers have been flown to New Zealand and secured new contracts in just five weeks, despite the programme having been suspended for the year prior and COVID-19 restrictions.  

Nearly 780 Samoan seasonal workers are expected to arrive in New Zealand across January and February, according to a statement from the country’s High Commission. 

Once official approval from New Zealand was made on Thursday 10 December, work began immediately to secure contracts for them.

By Sunday 17 January the first group of workers had flown out of Samoa, and by month’s end a total of 624 had made it across New Zealand’s borders. 

Documents obtained by the Samoa Observer under New Zealand’s Official Information Act reveal New Zealand’s Government confirmed Samoa would be the first country to send workers to the country, beginning in early December.

“Whilst this is great news for Samoa, we also know the logistical challenges posed by this opportunity,” Samoa’s relationship manager in New Zealand, Faumuina Lafaele Lupo told the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Labour (M.C.I.L.) in an email.

“We have every confidence that Samoa is more than capable of meeting and overcoming these challenges.”

Under COVID-19 border controls, New Zealand has ceased issuing employment visas, with only a few exceptions one of which is for participants in the Recognised Seasonal Employer (R.S.E.) scheme.

The seasonal work division set about securing placements for Samoan workers immediately, with a cross-country meeting on the afternoon that New Zealand officially confirmed Samoa could send workers to the country, the documents show. 

 It was confirmed the seasonal workers would not need the obligatory medical requirements for their visa, including a chest X-ray.

The effort to transport the workers into secure jobs ran into some early difficulties; it was discovered that an unknown number of workers had registered with M.C.I.L. twice. Another group of prospective labourers did not have valid passports , the 600 workers were approved.

There were also discrepancies in data between Samoa’s official database of workers and that of Immigration New Zealand. Passport numbers, dates of birth and names were among the mismatched data.

But all workers have now been successfully transferred to New Zealand. 

The earliest intake of workers, who arrived in New Zealand on five separate special flights, beginning on 17 January have now finished their mandatory two weeks’ quarantine. Later arrivals are still in quarantine facilities.  

Samoa’s workers constitute the largest single group of a total of 2000 workers being brought into the country from countries across the region, including Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.

They are the first workers sent to New Zealand since the beginning of the pandemic and all are required to fulfil the criteria of being experienced and skilled.

Tonga was offered to send workers but declined, citing issues with quarantine for workers on their return home.

R.S.E. workers in the programme are this year expected to meet increased standards to gain admission to the scheme.

Workers have to pay for flights upfront but can later recover half the cost; the cost of two weeks quarantine in Government-run facilities in New Zealand; and travel costs to and from work. 

The workers are paid NZ$22.10 (approximately WST$40) per hour for a 30 hour week, or $3 more than New Zealand’s current minimum wage. 

Australia National University Research Fellow, Charlotte Bedford, says it will take 13 flights to bring all 2000 R.S.E. workers to the scheme. Capacity for quarantine is limited, with just 156 available at a time, which requires workers to stay two-to-a-room. 

It took the New Zealand horticulture and wine industry months of lobbying to get workers back in New Zealand from overseas. 

Originally they had asked for more than 6000 workers, but the Government approved space for just 2000, Ms. Bedford said.

Before Samoa’s workers left, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi addressed them in a large meeting, and told them to abide by New Zealand’s COVID-19 rules or risk being sent home.

“Use this opportunity wisely,” he said.

“These are opportunities that some could only wish for but weren’t able to participate because you were selected. 

“I thank the government of New Zealand and the companies who are the employers for trusting in our people.”

Despite the influx of some 2000 Pacific labourers, there are fears within the New Zealand horticulture industry that the amount will be nowhere near enough to fill demand for labour. 

The general manager of the Yummy Fruit Company, Paul Paynter, told the Otago Daily Times earlier this month that at least 10,000 workers would be needed to make up for the shortfall, which could result in export losses of up to NZD$100 million in the Hawke’s Bay region alone. 

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