Q&A: NZ seasonal worker scheme unlocks productivity, upskilling

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Q&A: NZ seasonal worker scheme unlocks productivity, upskilling

New Zealand is renowned worldwide for the quality and safety standards of its fruit and vegetable exports, but there is an unsung hero of sorts that has contributed greatly to that success - the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme. At www.freshfruitportal.com, we caught up with Pipfruit New Zealand business development manager Gary Jones to discuss an often underestimated factor of production in his sector, which has not only transformed an industry but the lives of many in developing nations. 

To start off, what is it that makes New Zealand's seasonal worker program so different compared to similar programs overseas?

I think the key thing is the individual employer directly employs these workers, and therefore develops relationships not only with them personally but in their village and with their village elders and leaders. So the network and tentacles of this stretch out into the different Pacific Islands. Gary Jones

Over the years it allows the whole model to strengthen and to become very personalized, and through that you get great loyalty from the employer and employee.

Often their money is many times what they could possibly earn working in the islands. Many of these workers can bring back over US$10,000 a year or more.

We provide guidance through programs that are supported with government in terms of our New Zealand Aid money, which is invested alongside the scheme to ensure we provide our best workers with good planning, opportunity and skills to use their money wisely and create commerce back in the island; that’s the long-term aim, to be able to stop coming to New Zealand and have a business at home that generates value and perpetuity.

But if that follows through would you be losing workers, or would there be a new flow of potential talent?

There’s always a turnover. Probably about 85-90% return each year and we think that’s a pretty healthy number. The aim is not to have the workers depend on this forever – the ideal situation is to provide them with skills where they can stay at home with their families and so if they come to New Zealand for seven months of the year it does have an impact on the islands.

It is transformational. It's seen as a migratory labor scheme but the real benefit is the capability development it provides.

And what do employers have to pay for under the program?

The employers have to make sure that they provide accommodation, they provide transport, they provide for the social and religious needs of the workers through pastoral care programs; they have to organize all the airfares, and pay for a one-way ticket, so paying half the return airfare, and as the workers come here for more and more years, and more workers have been here, they become part of the community.

In places like Hawke’s Bay, Motueka and Te Puke where these workers have been going many years, they are as relaxed in our communities and as familiar with them as any New Zealander would be. Early on in the scheme there was a huge amount of investment to ensure they transition into our societies without any problems.

Do you find the big industries of kiwifruit and apples have to compete with one another to attract the best workers?

It works out not too badly really in that if you look at a 12-month cycle, if you start in winter there’s a lot of grape pruning. There’s a lot of work in the grape regions, especially in the Marlborough region in the South Island and Central Otago, and then they can move into fruit thinning, summer fruit thinning and apple thinning in spring, and then there’s the summer fruit harvest and the apple harvest.

Then it moves into kiwifruit and citrus after that, plus there are other things like vegetables, squash, sweet corn harvesting and packing. But the major ones are the earlier ones.

There is a little bit of overlap occurring with the apple and kiwifruit, with the later varieties of apples and the earlier SunGold kiwifruit, but that’s being managed as well. The key to this is to have workers that over the seven months - many of them.

will go to two employers and this has evolved over time where relationships have been formed that will allow the workers to move around and be hosted by a new employer; it’s all documented, planned and everything is checked in terms of accommodation. They move around from region to region, and that’s more efficient and effective.

It's not perfect every time, but we’re dealing with a seasonal industry and nature plays its hand, and that’s nothing new for farmers or orchardists that are used to climatic variations.

You mentioned how many workers will eventually want to take their skills home back to the Pacific Islands, but for others I’d imagine with the skills they’ve developed they’d want to have career development within the companies where they’ve been working. Are there any opportunities like that?

There are several things that can be done. All our workers are dealing with food products and working within quality systems and quality assurance programs – as you know, New Zealand apples go to the most discerning supermarkets around the world that have the highest standards. A lot of capability is needed from the workers in those spaces where there are very rigorous health and safety systems in place.

With the health and safety systems, the food safety systems, there is quite a lot of training involved with the workers, and they can come back and be upskilled every year.

The other thing we do is we do literacy, numeracy, financial and difficult literacy programs with thousands of the workers, and we have also identified a program where we have identified more entrepreneurial type workers and we’re upskilling them with more skills in a business sense.

The aim of those programs is to take them back to the islands, but on top of that we have our Pacific Island ballots where people can apply to come to New Zealand, and if they’re successful and get picked, then they need to find an employer and if they can find one as a sponsor they can come to New Zealand with a work permit.

A lot of our workers are coming back and applying for a ballot now using their employer as a sponsor and they’re coming back to New Zealand under those balloted schemes.

As our economy strengthens, in our regions we start to have skills shortages in certain areas and so there are opportunities there for workers who pick up the skills as they get those qualifications, and they can apply for a skills shortage list for a worker permit that can move on to residency. It is staircasing up these people for completely different lives, and being highly productive contributors to New Zealand’s first world economy.

In terms of productivity and social accountability, how does the scheme compare to the contracting model used in other places like Australia, Europe and the United States?

We’ve observed what’s happening in those countries. The key thing for me is the direct line of sight – essentially when we’re dealing with large retailers in the Northern Hemisphere or anywhere, they want to make sure that all their product meets the specifications and they can have absolute assurance the product has good food safety, quality outcomes and that socially it’s been produced making sure that the people involved in the supply chain have been looked after in a range of ways.

There’s a real tension there because the people who own multimillion dollar businesses that are using these workers absolutely need to ensure their product meets the market and there are no issues with any of those challenges. If there were, the repercussions for that company would be catastrophic because if their product was removed off the shelves because of some perceived risk, then that would have major implications for their business.

In terms of the contractor, the contractor insulates those businesses potentially and the labor or the brand isn’t always so exposed – the contractor moves round to many employers and the employer doesn’t always get the same workers coming back, so why would they invest in those workers? They’re not always guaranteed to reap the value of those skills they invest in.

We like our model and the opportunity our model presents. Not everyone in New Zealand is a direct employer, and we have many contractors, but they are always the very best contractors and are very closely monitored. In terms of pipfruit, most of our workers work directly for the employer.

And politically speaking, is there a consistent outlook for the scheme?

Accessing workers from the Pacific Islands is natural for us. They assimilate well into our communities and we feel part culturally and socially we’re very close. The government and our communities certainly support this approach and we see this as part of our role as a first-world country in the Pacific to provide leadership in this space and to provide outcomes for those workers.

They key thing for New Zealand and our businesses is bringing in these Pacific Island workers has to create more than transactional value. We have to be creating more full-time employment for New Zealanders and skilled New Zealanders. What we’re working towards is as we’re growing - and the horticultural industries are growing strongly -

we’re looking to use RSE to create productivity and jobs that are highly skilled. As long as we can demonstrate RSE is creating more growth, that it’s putting more in than it takes out, then I think we’ll be supported by government and our communities.

Is there room for extending the program to include other regions?

No. I don’t think that’s going to necessarily happen at the moment; for the Pacific Islands, we’re talking from Papua New Guinea to Kiribati to the Cook Islands, there are a huge number of people throughout those countries. I think we’re accessing 12 countries at the moment – whilst there are some other Asian countries that have provided workers into a pre-RSE program which existed and those workers are still able to come out, those programs are really focused on the Pacific Islands.

I think that for us I think most of our employers are comfortable and that’s fine – Fiji has just come back into it so we’ve got a large pool of workers in a very big Pacific Island country there. Even as we grow we’re not going to exhaust the Pacific in any way at all for the foreseeable future.

And do you think other country's horticultural industries could be losing out because New Zealand has tapped in to this opportunity?

It’s an awkward question. I suppose I would look at the success RSE has created for New Zealand and if I talk for the apple industry, we have created and recovered and raised our quality so significantly, that we’re out in the different markets all around the world – we’re in 65-70 different countries; we’re marketing all over the place, we always get the best shelf space.

The industry is absolutely booming, returning huge value, where all our competitors in the horticultural space appear to be struggling with a whole range of problems, many of them quality based. So RSE has been transformational for our industry. I think many people undervalue the huge productivity increases that it’s created and the increases in value.

Our goal is to go from great to greater, and we’re working on plans to do that. RSE will be a key part of it.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Now that they’ve had the cyclone in Vanuatu and tourism is down, the biggest employer of people in Vanuatu probably outside tourism and their government, possible more than tourism at the moment, are New Zealand’s horticultural and viticulture operations.

The biggest employer behind the Samoan government for Samoans in the world are horticultural operations in New Zealand. That’s something you’ll find across the Pacific – for Tonga, 1.5% of the population flies to New Zealand and works each year.

My challenge is to think of these migratory schemes as capability development programs, and a way to increase opportunities in supply chains as opposed to create competition. I’d challenge other countries to look at how they could develop migratory labor schemes to develop capability in other parts of the world that also help a seasonal supply of products into markets.

It’s a challenge whilst we’ve got a lot of unemployed in different countries and economies are a bit depressed, we’ve got lots of migration challenges happening all around the world, but that’s certainly something that needs to be looked at in the future.


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