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Tonga passes on latest RSE intake in New Zealand

Tonga is not participating in the latest iteration of the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme in New Zealand due to repatriation and quarantine difficulties.

Tonga RSE workers
Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

By Sela Jane Hopgood for RNZ Pacific

In November, Business Central welcomed the government’s decision to allow an extra 2,000 experienced seasonal workers into New Zealand in from January to mid-March this year.

Samoa, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Fiji have confirmed their participation in the horticulture and viticulture seasonal work.

However, Tonga has had to pass on the opportunity because they are unable to meet certain criteria of the new programme, which includes a guaranteed return flight home at the end of the season.

The participating countries need to demonstrate they can meet the criteria for the new programme, which includes a guaranteed return flight home at the end of the season.

The Pacific countries also have to put in place plans to repatriate any other workers who are still in New Zealand from the previous season and are ready to return home.

Chief Executive of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Tonga, which manages the country’s interaction with RSE, Fotu Fisiiahi said they had very limited quarantine facilities and coulf only repatriate 248 people every three weeks due to the capacity of the quarantine buildings.

“We have close to 4,000 Tongans stranded in New Zealand, Australia and other parts of the world, some of them worse off financially than RSE workers, living with families, living in garages and not earning any money.

“We need to prioritise those families to ensure they get back home safely and feeling well.

“We also have 1,400 plus Tongans in New Zealand already doing RSE work, so we have to get them back to Tonga once they’re finished to then take part in the new programme,” he said.

Tonga RSE workers
Photo: RNZ/Peter Fowler

Fisiiahi explained that the 2,000 workers would be divided among the four Pacific Island countries.

“Samoa, Vanuatu, the Solomons and Fiji have taken up on the opportunity because most of their workers have returned home when the borders closed in New Zealand last year.

“We are slowly bringing Tongans back home, and we’re not worse off because in the meantime we continue to send 152 people every second week to Australia for work,” Fisiahii said.

The Chief Executive of New Zealand Apples and Pears in Hastings, Alan Pollard, said this was a discussion between Tonga and New Zealand governments.

“All participating Pacific countries have been asked to provide some undertakings to the New Zealand government with respect to the process, and from what I understand Tonga has not been in a position to do that at this time.”

An Immigration New Zealand spokesperson confirmed with RNZ Pacific that Tonga had not signed an agreement to participate in this border exception and send workers over.

“A number of RSE Tongan workers remain in New Zealand from the previous season. RSE employers continue to be committed to their employees and remain responsible for their pastoral care.”

Immigration to New Zealand.
Immigration to New Zealand. Photo: RNZ

Immigration New Zealand has said that workers who wish to return home are encouraged to arrange flights via a commercial airline or contact the Tongan government for assistance.

The first arrivals reported by Immigration New Zealand were 600 workers from Samoa who arrived mid-January and were transferred directly to government managed isolation facilities for a 14 day stay.

On the other hand, Vanuatu has absorbed 45 per cent of the RSE labour, the largest participation out of the four Pacific countries, meaning 900 experienced workers will be coming to New Zealand for the new programme.

They will be traveling to New Zealand on eight chartered flights to be operated by Air Vanuatu on the expense of RSE employers from this month to March.

The first group of over 150 workers will be leaving on Tuesday next week.

The border exception for the 2,000 Pacific workers comes with conditions which include: agreement from workers to pay workers at least NZ$22.10 an hour, employers to meet cost of their worker’s managed isolation and workers to be paid the equivalent of 30 hours work a week while in managed isolation.

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