NZ Immigration Minister Michael Wood agrees to meet RSE workers after endemic 'slavery' allegations

Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Saunoamaali'i Karanina Sumeo’s report into the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme made waves when it said some workers were subjected to conditions akin to modern slavery.

Now New Zealand Immigration Minister Michael Wood says he will try and meet some of the workers at the centre of it.

Wood said he was “very open” to meeting the RSE workers whose allegations formed the basis of a damning report by the Human Rights Commission into the scheme.

Sumeo said the Human Rights Commission had found too many stories akin to modern-day slavery and this indicated the problems were far greater than usually appreciated.

In one case, an RSE worker was told to lie on the ground while the boss stood on their back, to make a point about who was in charge.

“Telling someone to lie on the ground and then being stood on by the boss to demonstrate to the rest of the room: this is how you’re going to be treated if you upset me – that’s what we’re talking about, it’s purposeful.

“The intent is to intimidate, it’s to instil fear – and to silence.

“You can imagine how upsetting that is for a Pacific person, when we look at these workers these are our brothers, our fathers, grandfathers, these are family.”

RSE advocate Leina Isno put out a call on Twitter inviting Wood to visit some of the workers and listen to their stories about how they were being treated.

Wood said he was open to meeting them and hinted he might do so even if their employers refused permission for him to see them.

“I would work through that [employers declining permission] respectfully, but I’m very happy and open to meet with RSE workers as, in fact, I already have.”

Isno likened the treatment of workers under NZ’s RSE scheme to “blackbirding” a scheme where thousands of Pacific Islanders were brought over to Australia in the late 1800s under false pretences, then given little choice but to work under harsh conditions for little pay.

“What’s happening in the vineyards, it’s not the way to treat human beings, you don’t treat people like that,” Isno said.

“I’m heartbroken. I just wanted to say that. I feel so heartbroken for my people and how they’re being treated by New Zealand because I don’t believe it is just happening to us.”

However, an employer representative said she had seen no evidence that there were endemic issues of “slavery” within the RSE scheme.

NZ Ethical Employers (NZEE) chief executive Tanya Pouwhare said what Sumeo had found was also out of line with an anonymous survey of 1400 workers where none reported systemic issues.

Pouwhare said the survey was anonymous so the workers, who were employed by NZEE member organisations, had no reason to lie or fear repercussions from their answers.

NZEE’s membership is largely composed of employers in the horticulture and viticulture sector who commit to meeting the United Nation’s Guiding Principles and embedding Human Rights within their businesses.

Pouwhare said members committed to monitoring their adherence to these standards and putting right any breaches.

“I can only speak on behalf of our membership, it’s definitely not systemic inside NZEE, that’s for sure.”

National Party spokeswoman Erica Stanford said she did not believe such issues were endemic, either.

“I think there are pockets of very poor behaviour in the RSE sector that need to be cleaned up, but I don’t think – from what I’ve seen of the sector – that it is as widespread, potentially, as has been made out.”

But First Union strategic project co-ordinator Anita Rosentreter backed Isno and Sumeo’s claims, and questioned the ability of NZEE to paint a fair picture of the situation.

“Their purpose is to protect the industry against accusations of worker exploitation, not to weed out these incidents and then resolve them in favour of the worker.”

Rosentreter said her union got involved with RSE workers initially when it tried to represent non-RSE workers working in horticulture but then started becoming aware of the conditions RSE workers were in.

“I think I’ve seen enough to feel pretty confident that this industry knows that there is widespread worker exploitation going on under this scheme.”

Isno worked with the Human Rights Commission to develop its report.

Both Isno and Sumeo said the scheme had huge advantages, but major changes were needed.

Isno said it had been an “amazing” scheme for the workers involved, but that shouldn’t stop people from trying to address the very real issues she had seen.

“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime to visit another country, to work in another country, to experience the culture of another country, but more importantly to make money to give back to their families and their communities.”

Sumeo said she believed issues with the scheme had to be fixed because the country would likely rely even more on the scheme in future given New Zealand’s ageing population.

The Human Rights Commission report recommended a number of actions to fix the RSE scheme including getting New Zealand to ratify the international convention on the protection of the rights of all migrant workers, reviewing the RSE scheme through a “human rights lens”, allowing RSE workers to switch employers without the permission of the employers they were leaving, clearer employment contracts, better enforcement through the labour inspectorate, limiting the deductions employers could take out of worker wages, more transparency around salary deductions made for things like healthcare, making an independent party responsible for worker pastoral care, and creating a process where workers coild freely return home early if they wanted to.

Pouwhare said many of the Human Rights Commission’s suggestions for improving the RSE scheme were already being discussed within a tripartite working group of unions, employers and the Government, and some were even due to be announced soon.

However, Green Party immigration spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March said tweaks would not be good enough, and the scheme needed a radical redesign.

“The RSE scheme is inherently exploitative, it offers no pathways to residency it also accepts that workers are just short-term economic units for the benefit of specific industries.

“So I do think the Government should have a think about how they may want to reimagine the RSE scheme to one that upholds the dignity of workers and doesn’t create inherent conditions for exploitation.”