Recognised Seasonal Employer: Workers to get sick leave as Government announces expansion

Workers in New Zealand under the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme will be entitled to sick leave as the Government takes note of "concerns expressed about working conditions".

But it's also expanding the scheme, extending the cap on RSE places in New Zealand by 3000 workers. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern acknowledged on Tuesday that with "more workers, comes more responsibility" and the RSE scheme is meant to be a "benefit both for the workers and of course for New Zealand industry".

"We have got to make sure that with any increase, we are continuing to ensure it is truly beneficial to workers, including making sure that where we have seen exploitation and poor treatment, and we have, that we absolutely act on it."

Media reports, including from Stuff, have highlighted serious issues with the working and living conditions some RSE workers in the country are subject to. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner has said some workers have been exploited and have had their rights violated.

Workplace Relations Minister Michael Wood on Tuesday said RSE workers' wellbeing "is a priority for" the Government.

"We have worked with industry and unions to introduce a new provision, that employers will be required to provide a sick leave entitlement to RSE workers," he said.

"That is in addition to the pre-existing minimum wage requirement of $22.10, which we introduced during the pandemic.

"We continue to work urgently with the industry and unions on further short-term improvements and employee safeguards to provide greater protections to workers. This work is in addition to our wider policy review to improve the RSE scheme for workers, as previously signalled."

The RSE scheme allows the horticulture and viticulture industries in New Zealand to bring workers from the Pacific Islands into the country to assist with the likes of planting, harvesting, and packing. 

There's a cap on the number of places. When the scheme was first established in 2007, it was set at 5000 workers, but that's steadily grown over the years since to 16,000. 

The Government announced on Tuesday that the cap would be extended again to 19,000, the largest jump in more than a decade. The cap was decided with both employer groups and unions at the table.

"The additional 3000 places, is a 19 percent increase on the previous season, and acknowledges the industry's current needs based on strong growth, and the lower number of working holiday makers onshore right now," Wood said.

"We are listening to industry, and worked closely with horticulture and wine sectors to ensure we strike the right balance by incentivising local employment, bringing in further additional workers, and also requiring working conditions to be improved."

There are currently nearly 6000 RSE workers in New Zealand, though this will grow over summer.

Wood was asked on Tuesday whether the Government was ramping the scheme up too quickly before a review of it has concluded.

"That would be a fair critique if all we were doing was to increase the numbers within the cap," he said.

"What we are doing at the same time as this is having employers and unions representing that workforce, sitting down and working together to improve conditions."

He said work would be done on accommodation condition standards.

"We have talked about trialling in a couple of the regions having a roving workplace rep, where they will be a worker who is actually be able to be there as a direct representative going about workplaces, raising issues and feeding through any concerns."

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said the RSE scheme isn't designed to fill all roles in the industries, with the cap intended to ensure employers still look to recruit New Zealanders where possible. It's also intended put pressure on employers to increase pay, improve conditions and invest in automation.

"Agriculture exports earned a record $53 billion last year, and it's critical to our recovery that we have the workforce to continue maximising production and earnings,” O'Connor said

"We've been working with the sector and making good progress on growing a local workforce, with nearly 10,000 New Zealanders attracted into food and fibre jobs over the past few years through our 'Opportunity Grows Here' campaign, and primary sector workforce programme."

The ACT Party's immigration spokesperson Dr James McDowall reacted to the announcement by saying the Government should just remove the RSE cap altogether. 

"The RSE scheme is a win-win-win for the primary industries, our pacific friends and neighbours, and New Zealand’s geopolitical aims of a more united and democratic pacific," he said.

"The only problem with it is successive Governments’ insistence on capping the number of people who can come to New Zealand under the scheme.

"Capping the scheme creates untold problems. Employers fight over a ‘quota’ that must be allocated to each one. The allocation formula is not fair and leads to delays and disappointment year after year."

He said the Government should only be concerned with upholding quality standards.

Greens spokesperson for Pacific Peoples Teanau Tuiono said the Government's changes "do not go anywhere near far enough to end the exploitation of Pacific peoples who travel to Aotearoa for work".

"What we're talking about here are the people who come to New Zealand from their homes in the Pacific and elsewhere - often leaving their families behind for months on end. We need to treat them with respect," he said.


"Pacific workers deserve access to residency pathways, fair wages, housing and access to essential services."