NZ travel bubble for seasonal workers

Seasonal workers from Samoa will be allowed to enter New Zealand without having to undergo two weeks’ mandatory quarantine, the country’s Government announced on Monday.

The one-way travel bubble, though limited, is the first sign of relaxation of restrictions between Samoa and New Zealand days after the issue of broader quarantine-free travel was raised. 

A Cabinet Directive from the new Faatuatua ile Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party Government released last week referred to talks between the two Governments about a travel “bubble” or “corridor”. But the Government’s official position is that only until Samoa’s vaccine targets are reached will it give consideration to to broader quarantine free travel. 

The policy change only applies to workers who are part of the Recognised Seasonal Employer (R.S.E.) scheme and will also apply to workers from Tonga and Vanuatu, Kiwi Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced on Monday. 

"We know our agriculture sector is experiencing challenges," she said. "We're working towards this opening up in September."

New Zealand’s agricultural sector, heavily dependent on labour from Pacific nations, has been facing a massive shortfall this year due to the travel restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions. 

Ardern said the policy shift would have the dual advantages of freeing up quarantine space in the country but also providing the agricultural sector with much-needed labour. 

The decision will not come into effect immediately. Prime Minister Ardern said it had only been agreed to “in principle” by the New Zealand Government’s Cabinet with a view to being implemented by September. 

“We are talking to these countries because the risk associated with quarantine-free travel is low,” Ardern said in a press conference. 

She said the plan would be to have a greater influx of foreign workers in place before the year-end peak when thousands of seasonal workers are needed to pick the country’s fruit and provide other labour. 

The announcement was met with immediate praise from industry who said it would help offset the negative effects of the pandemic on Pacific island economies. 

"This decision is the result of many months of negotiations between industry and government," the head of NZ Apples and Pears Incorporated, Alan Pollard, said in a statement.

“We have long argued that, with the Pacific Islands largely COVID free, the idea of restricting worker movement to [quarantine] capacity has never made sense,"

Unlike Australia, New Zealand has not indicated a vaccination target for when it will start re-opening borders.

“The Pacific Islands have been hit hard by the impact of the pandemic, with tourism decimated and our border largely closed. Communities relying on the wages earned by R.S.E. workers will be relieved that the opportunity for employment in our orchards will once again be available."

In June this year there were chaotic scenes as the Ministry of Commerce Industry and Labour was forced to cancel its registration for the programme after a crowd of thousands who turned up at a Congregational Christian Church of Samoa-owned Sogi hall to register surged and broke the church's doors. Three people were sent to hospital. 

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