When quarantine-free one-way travel (QFT) was introduced in October 2021 for Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu – three countries participating in New Zealand’s Recognized Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme – it was considered that the arrangement would bring significant relief to horticulture and viticulture. grape growers seeking seasonal labor for the 2022 season. Thanks to a series of external factors, including the recent volcanic eruption and tsunami in Tonga and the arrival of COVID-19 in Tonga and Samoa, QFT arrivals for the peak harvest period are now in question.
Collaborative efforts to implement the QFT – by CSR employers, industry groups, commercial airlines and government officials from New Zealand and the participating Pacific countries – got the arrangement off to a good start. . Regular flights arrived in the spring (September to November) and by early January 2022 over 2,400 CSR workers had entered under QFT, the majority from Vanuatu (50%) and Samoa (39%), and a smaller share of Tonga (11%) .
If QFT had continued as planned, an additional 6,600 CSR workers were expected to arrive between mid-January and the end of March for the summer harvest period. As with previous QFT flights and with CSR recruitment in previous years, Vanuatu (45%) secured the majority of places, followed by Samoa (37%) and Tonga (17%).
In the case of Tonga, more than 1,100 CSR workers were due to arrive in New Zealand by March 31. However, following the January 15 eruption and tsunami and the outbreak of COVID-19 – likely linked to the delivery of humanitarian aid in the aftermath of the disaster – the country is now in lockdown.
COVID-19 has also reached the shores of Samoa. After a short lockdown and no evidence of community transmission, Samoa has returned to daily life with COVID-19 restrictions in place. But international flights are largely limited to cargo. The Samoan government has approved a single CSR charter flight for mid-February, likely to carry around 300 workers, and a cargo flight carrying passengers in both directions. CSR employers had planned to draw heavily on Samoan labor for the upcoming apple harvest; 2,500 Samoan RSE workers were originally due to arrive by March 31.
Given the ever-changing environment in which the CSR program operates, it is difficult to predict what numbers may arrive by March 31: however, a conservative estimate – as of February 12 and noting that flight times change short-term – would suggest around 4,200 of those originally scheduled to arrive may come. There are several assumptions in this estimate: 1) all flights from Vanuatu scheduled through March 31 arrive as scheduled; 2) Samoa has around 450 workers arriving in February on newly announced flights and from 1 March regular CSR flights resume as scheduled; and 3) Tonga resumes RSE flights from March. There could be 1,500 additional RSE arrivals if Samoa and Tonga can reschedule postponed flights from January and February, and also operate those flights in March. This in turn would bring the total to around 5,700 arrivals. But these are very big assumptions, and in the case of Tonga, unlikely given that the country is now grappling with a growing outbreak of COVID-19.
As the peak harvest period begins, growers fear another difficult season with a labor shortage likely to be exacerbated by Omicron. Currently, about 7,500 CSR workers are in the country, about half of the current annual cap of 14,400 CSRs. This year, rather than being a component of the seasonal workforce, they are the core of the workforce. There are few backpackers left and it is virtually impossible to find suitable New Zealanders for seasonal jobs in rural and regional areas with the current record unemployment rate, despite major campaigns to lure Kiwis into seasonal jobs.
Of the 7,500 CSR workers ashore, approximately 3,100 are long-term workers who arrived pre-COVID, before March 2020. Long-term CSR workers have now been performing heavy physical labor in orchards and vineyards for more than two years. Burnout, declining motivation and productivity are taking their toll at a time when CSR workers may face intense pressure to make up for labor shortages by working long hours to pick and pack the fruit . In the kiwifruit industry alone, 24,000 seasonal workers are needed for the March harvest peak, with an estimated shortfall of 6,500 workers.
As part of the government’s recently announced five-stage phased reopening of the border, CSR workers from other eligible Pacific countries will be able to return to the country from the end of February. However, unlike the QFT where RSE workers began work immediately, they will be required to self-isolate for 10 days in line with public health requirements. Backpackers – another important component of the seasonal workforce – can also re-enter from mid-March. But there’s no guarantee of a sudden influx of backpackers as New Zealand deals with its Omicron outbreak. The expense associated with 10-day self-isolation can be an additional deterrent.
Even with the opening of the CSR system to other countries, where will the workers come from? Fiji has faced a third wave of COVID-19, although this may have peaked in January 2022. The Solomon Islands, Kiribati and PNG are all battling outbreaks of COVID-19, with lockdowns in place. place in Kiribati and the Solomon Islands. Tuvalu and Nauru are COVID-free, but both countries’ CSR numbers have historically been weak.
When it comes to CSR labor supply, it seems likely that employer demands will fall on Vanuatu. Vanuatu remains COVID-19 free and could potentially provide more seasonal labor, but not without overcoming several issues: a current shortage of passports due to supply delays from Europe; the lack of staff and resources within the Employment Services Unit (ESU) which processes applications for seasonal work in New Zealand and for labor mobility programs in Australia; and vaccination requirements which mean that all ni-Vanuatu departing for New Zealand must be fully vaccinated – a challenge when less than half of the eligible adult population had received two doses by 30 January 2022. Vanuatu is due to start administer the Johnson and Johnson single-dose vaccine to more quickly reach national immunization goals.
In addition to this, the Vanuatu Department of Labor recently increased license fees for registered recruitment agents to help cover some of the administrative costs of ESU. The higher fees for agents will mean higher recruitment costs for CSR employers who use agents to recruit their CSR workers. Initial costs for ni-Vanuatu workers to participate in the CSR program have also increased, in part due to additional COVID-19 testing requirements prior to departure.
Thanks to a favorable growing season for apples and kiwifruit, high production volumes are expected for 2022 with good quality fruit. However, labor remains the main constraint. While industry CEOs of the country’s main horticultural exports – kiwifruit, wine and apples – hail the government’s plans to reopen the border, all say it’s too little, too late.
Despite government initiatives over the past 12 months, a significant shortage of workers for the peak harvest seems almost guaranteed. It is difficult to see, at this time, what additional measures can be offered to support the labor needs of the industry. The 2022 season could still be the toughest producers have faced in the program’s 15-year history.
This research was supported by the Pacific Research Program with funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Views represent those of the author only.