New Zealand’s past relationship with the Pacific has been marked by exploitation. Is the RSE scheme, which brings Pacific Islanders to work in our orchards and vineyards for several months of the year, really progress or just more of the same?
In less than 10 days, the summer fruits will ripen, ready to be sorted, packaged and sent for sale in Aotearoa and abroad.
But one question keeps being asked: Who will pick the fruit?
Since 2007, this job has been largely left to workers from the Pacific through the government’s Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme.
The scheme was established after a push from Pacific leaders to tackle unemployment and provide Pacific peoples’ access to New Zealand coin. Touted as a “mutually beneficial development scheme”, it creates a sustained labour force for New Zealand growers while simultaneously giving workers (and their families) the chance to thrive economically.
Vanuatu takes the biggest slice of the RSE pie (just over 4,000) followed by Tonga (1,900), Sāmoa (1,800), and the Solomon Islands (640).
And New Zealand businesses love it, with many employers praising Pacific workers for their agility, strength, tenacity, and quality picking. Now, growers compete to access the Pacific-worker pool, fuelling demands to expand the RSE quota.
Like it has with everything else, Covid-19 has led to severe disruptions to the RSE scheme. While 3,000 RSE workers have been able to return since our first Covid lockdown, nearly 7,000 have remained in New Zealand. But with borders closed, businesses are scrambling to fill an estimated 10,000-plus shortage of seasonal workers across the board.
Fearing great financial losses to the industry, growers have their eyes firmly set on the Pacific islands, demanding the government open New Zealand’s borders to thousands more RSE workers to fill this critical deficit. Time is of the essence. The fruit, if left to perish, could cost the industry around $9.5 billion dollars.
This approach seems logical, too: the participating Pacific Island nations are largely Covid-free, so they pose minimal risk to our elimination strategy. With many of these islands reeling from the pandemic’s economic sucker-punch, there’s the moral argument that New Zealand should prioritise these workers before, say, granting visa exemptions to the “designers” of a US billionaire’s golf course and a celebrity nanny.
But despite these disruptions and potential financial losses, our ongoing global pandemic has also given us time to pause and reflect on the RSE scheme — and to question how Pacific peoples are viewed by some RSE employers and how Pacific RSE workers are being treated in its everyday operations.
As much as we’re supportive of our Pacific peoples being gainfully employed, it’s become clear how New Zealand so often relies on Pacific labour to be its economic clutch.
Think back to the 1950s and ‘60s when the government seduced the first wave of Pacific migrants to the “land of milk and honey”, promising economic prosperity and job opportunities in the post-World War Two economic boom.
While many families were eager to traverse Te Moana Nui a Kiwa in search of a better life, we must be mindful not to romanticise the government’s intentions through rose-tinted revisionism. Pacific peoples’ invitation to the party was, first and foremost, fuelled by an economic need to fill critical labour shortages in low-paying, industrial jobs — work that was wholly undesirable to a growing Pākehā middle class.
New Zealand welcomed these families with open arms for almost two decades, turning a blind eye to overstayers as long as the economy needed them. It was a capitalist agenda masquerading as generosity. As David Mayeda, Tara Leota-Seiuli and Torisse Laulu write, Pacific peoples were classified as cheap labourers, “valuable only to the extent that they would serve as physical labourers in our textile, cleaning, meat packing and factory based industries”.
But with the global oil crisis of the 1970s and rapid economic downturn, Pacific peoples were “othered” and imagined as a permanent, foreign threat to the New Zealand economy. These racist myths rendered Pasifika as parasites on state resources, a viewpoint bolstered by political campaigns characterising the community as violent, belligerent dole-bludgers unable to assimilate to “Kiwi life”.
In the public eye, the Pasifika population became disposable, ready to be dawn-raided, criminalised and deported. They were literally and metaphorically expelled from New Zealand society, only to then be reabsorbed into the same socio-economic conditions, including through subsequent labour schemes.
In the 13 years since the RSE scheme came into effect, there’s been massive growth in our billion-dollar horticulture and viticulture industries — this year valued at $10 billion and $2.3 billion respectively. Much of this success is off the back of Pacific labourers. Since 2007, the RSE quota has nearly tripled to 13,000 workers per season, and the scheme has widened from three countries to nine.
There’s no doubt that RSE employment has made a difference for many workers and their families and the economies back home. It’s undeniable that remittance payments — overseas workers sending earnings back home — are incredibly important sources of income for many families in the Pacific.
But you have to ask why New Zealanders still aren’t keen on applying for fruit-picking jobs — even in the midst of a national recession.
Although growers are legally obliged to employ a local workforce, union organisers routinely cite job insecurity, shady employers, and poor pay (for what is notoriously intensive labour) as the primary deterrents. In fact, the managing director of one Kiwifruit packing business frankly described fruit picking as “shit work”.
Why, then, are we happy for our Pacific workers (and other migrant labourers) to do this work?
When the first Covid-19 lockdown hit, thousands of migrant workers, including some RSE workers, were stranded in Aotearoa in financial limbo. While many RSE employees were able to stay as essential workers under an eleventh-hour visa extension, video and audio recordings emerged of alleged worker mistreatment in the Hawke’s Bay, making visible what some might have suspected goes on behind closed doors.
The image of 20 or so Solomon Island workers sitting awkwardly on the floor, their heads bowed as their boss, Anthony Rarere, scolds three of them for allegedly absconding, shows a troubling power imbalance.
The meeting, which the employees secretly taped, makes for an uncomfortable listen. Rarere’s power trip is palpable through the airwaves, his patronising tone making the situation seem less like an “employment dispute” (his words) and more of an egotistical power-trip by an employer manipulating his staff into a contractual armbar.
Frustratingly, the workers returned home before their claims could properly be investigated by MBIE. Details subsequently emerged about conflicts of interests, confidentiality breaches, and the scheme being run like “Cuba”.
Hearing about these stories of alleged migrant worker exploitation, we couldn’t help but find them worryingly reminiscent of when New Zealand and other colonial powers used Pacific bodies for their own economic gain. Contrary to what many may believe, this legacy of colonial exploitation goes further back than the luring of Pacific migrants in the 1950s and ‘60s.
The colonial context in which the RSE scheme and other migrant labour schemes operate goes back 150 years to “blackbirding” — the practice of enslaving (often by force or deception) South Pacific islanders to work on the cotton and cane fields in Queensland, Fiji and Sāmoa, and sometimes further afield in South America.
It’s estimated that more than 62,000 workers were “recruited” from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands by Australian “blackbirders”, although the true scale remains unknown.
While there’s some disagreement on whether blackbirding can be labelled a slave trade, it’s indisputable that thousands of Pacific Islanders were systematically exploited into indentured labour schemes, with many dying as a result.
There’s a collective amnesia around New Zealand’s involvement in blackbirding. The government was, at the very least, complicit in the recruitment, kidnapping and trafficking of black and brown bodies to plantations in the South Pacific and Queensland between 1860-1870, with at least 32 vessels allegedly involved.
New Zealand’s colonial legacy in the Pacific is one that was inherently exploitative. We took — not just land and resources but brown bodies, too. Let’s not forget the 144 Tongans kidnapped from ‘Ata island by Australian and New Zealand whalers, and then sold to Peruvian slave traders.
Blackbirding, like any slave economy, was rooted in white supremacy — the Pacific islands were seen as prime labour reserves with thousands forced to work in plantations and paid a pittance for their labour.
There is strong evidence to show how groups of Melanesians from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands were coerced to work in New Zealand under the pretence of greater economic “opportunity”.
One example is from May, 1870 when the schooner Lulu docked in Auckland harbour with a “cargo of coconuts and 27 New Hebrides [Vanuatu] men from Efate”. According to the captain’s own account, he paid “douceurs” (bribes) to Island chiefs to acquire his “cargo”. The mission was bankrolled by Auckland financier Edward Brissenden who used the men as cheap labour at his West Auckland flax mill.
When the Lulu arrived, the New Zealand Herald wrote an editorial that was equal parts degrading and distressing. While referring to the men as “niggers”, the Herald warned that “the importation of Island labour” had opened up “a new side of the labour question”. This was labour “on the cheap”, it wrote, adding that “if masters cannot afford to employ white labour, [then] this is no country for the working man”.
As for the plight of the workers, it wrote,
. . . there is at present no check upon justice of any kind. The men themselves are utterly ignorant of legal redress, and unless rules and regulations are laid down at once, we shall be having all sorts of abuses creeping in unawares.
This caution seems as relevant now as it was 150 years ago.
While we’re not claiming that the RSE scheme is contemporary blackbirding, it’s important to acknowledge the long shadow blackbirding casts over contemporary seasonal worker programmes.
This colonial legacy maintains a grip on our present, framing our relationship to the Pacific Islands and their people.
New Zealand has benefited from colonial conquest and exploitation of the Pacific, not just through material extraction of land, resources and unequal trade agreements but also by strategically pigeonholing Pacific peoples into low-paid, manual work for sub-par wages.
Capitalism and racism are mutually reinforcing. The former often uses Black, Indigenous, and people of colour as pawns on the capitalist chessboard, strategically played for social and economic clout with these groups seldom reaping the economic fruits of their labour.
Examining the RSE scheme in the context of blackbirding is important because the Lulu (like other ships that arrived with Pacific “workers”) created what could be described as a blueprint for the Pacific proletariat in Aotearoa, feeding into the pervasive (and racist) rhetoric that brown bodies are “better” at performing physical labour.
The system, both past and present, is anchored in a capitalist logic. We need to recognise and acknowledge the ugly truths in our historical dealings with the Pacific to ensure such corruption doesn’t creep into the present.
And while many RSE employers in New Zealand do adhere to rigorous employment standards (which are arguably stricter given the duty of care owed to their foreign workers), unfortunately there are some bad apples in the basket.
Some have suggested that the RSE scheme’s primary fault is its cap on worker numbers and bureaucratic red tape. However, a fixation on the numbers overlooks the fundamental problem of a scheme built on a business model that sees workers foremost as capital generators rather than human beings.
While these workers and their families do objectively benefit financially from this business model, this fact alone doesn’t acknowledge its complexities. Even leaving aside the difficulties some workers may face while they’re here, there are human costs associated with being away from your community and your family — your children, wives, husbands — for upwards of seven months a year.
Maintaining two lives both at home and abroad is taxing, and what’s concerning is that worker perspectives are rarely amplified in mainstream media. This is something Angie Enoka, who completed the first PhD study on media coverage of the RSE scheme, found in her research:
There was a big absence of the RSE workers voices in most news coverage unless journalists made strenuous efforts to source other voices. Most of the articles appealed to the dominant group, for instance, the representatives from the horticulture and viticulture industries and government officials, so the Pacific Island workers themselves rarely had a voice.
Angie argues that the pandemic had provided an opportunity to put the scheme under closer scrutiny. One of the most common criticisms is around wages — rates have remained relatively stagnant throughout RSE’s 13 years, despite increasing accommodation costs, living expenses, and employer deductions.
Immigration New Zealand even acknowledged in their recent RSE Impact Study that, since 2007, there hasn’t been a comprehensive assessment of workers’ end-to-end costs, from the time they depart their homeland to when they conclude their seasonal work.
Without this information, how do we know whether RSE participation provides sufficient financial rewards to be “worth” the sacrifice for families to be separated for long periods of time?
The RSE scheme may be an improvement on past labour schemes. It may have brought economic benefits to Pacific nations and peoples. But it has some way to go before it can truly be said to be a scheme based on a relationship between equals — a relationship that’s both mutually respectful and beneficial.
The question then is more than “who will pick the fruit?”
Instead, we should be asking: Will employers pay wages that accurately reflect the intensity of the work being done, rather than just the bare minimum required by law? Will all workers be guaranteed access to decent accommodation, healthcare, leave entitlements, and legal information? Will there be ongoing research to ensure the nine Pacific Island countries are equally benefiting socially, culturally, and economically from the scheme? Will workers’ voices be heard at every stage? And which businesses will be willing to forego more of their profits to ensure the greater wellbeing of not only the RSE workers but other New Zealanders, too?
The big question is whether New Zealand has done enough to leave behind the legacy of exploitation that’s defined its past relationship with Pacific peoples.
We don’t think so. And until it does, we can’t help but echo the sentiments of a Pasifika teenager who marched down Auckland’s Queen St during the school climate strike march last year: Pick your own damn fruit.
Litia Tuiburelevu (Fijian, Tongan, Pākehā) was born and raised in Auckland. She graduated in 2018 with a BA/LLB (Hons) and is a professional teaching fellow at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Law, overseeing the Pacific law students’ academic programme. She teaches an elective course titled “Pacific Peoples and the Law: Critical Perspectives” and is also interested in film and photography.
Hugo Wagner-Hiliau (Tongan-Pālangi) is a fifth year LLB (Hons) student at the University of Auckland. This year, he’s been studying legal history as part of his honours law degree, for which he’s currently writing a paper on blackbirding and New Zealand’s RSE scheme.
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