Visa rules relaxed for stranded seasonal workers, farm employees

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway announced more changes to visa rules on Wednesday.
Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway announced more changes to visa rules on Wednesday. Photo credit: Getty

Seasonal workers stranded in New Zealand in the wake of COVID-19 have been given some flexibility by the Immigration Minister. 

Iain Lees-Galloway said on Wednesday that rules around the hours and roles that Recognised Seasonal Employees (RSE) and migrant seasonal workers could work would be relaxed to help them to continue to support themselves.

The new visa rules allow them to work part-time (a maximum of 15 hours a week) and with no limit on the roles they can do.

Any additional time they spend in New Zealand would not count towards the time they ordinarily had to spend outside the country before being allowed to return for seasonal work.

However, the workers will need to have an employment agreement with an RSE employer, who will need to continue to honour commitments under the RSE scheme, Lees-Galloway said.

The change allows workers to move around the country freely to take up job opportunities not necessarily related to the work they were previously doing.

"Around 9000 seasonal workers are still in New Zealand, a number of those stranded with no flights home and no way to support themselves after the harvest season has ended," Lees-Galloway said on Wednesday. 

"The Government is supporting Pacific Island governments to repatriate their citizens but many are expected to remain in New Zealand for some time."

Around 14,400 workers arrive in New Zealand each year to fill seasonal labour roles, the majority coming from Pacific Island nations.

Last month the Defence Force was called in to repatriate a number of workers from Vanuatu who were unable to return home.

Lees-Galloway said New Zealand had a responsibility to look after RSE workers here.

He said it was expected in the future more Kiwis from other industries would fill the positions traditionally filled by migrant workers.

"We are facing a rise in unemployment among New Zealanders and we expect more New Zealanders to be available for work next season."

He also said in order to give employers in the horticulture and viticulture sectors more certainty, the annual cap for the RSE scheme for next year had been kept at 14,400.

Horticulture New Zealand's chief executive Mike Chapman said he welcomed the rule change but added that it should have come a lot earlier.

"We really needed these Government decisions three months ago. While local communities have rallied to support RSE workers, Government's delays have caused RSE workers and their employers unnecessary anxiety and cost."

Chapman said of the 9000 workers still in the country around 4000 were waiting to go home.

Farming sector pleased with visa changes

The farming sector said it was pleased with an extension granted for employer-assisted temporary work visas announced by the Government on Tuesday.

Jane Muir, DairyNZ people team leader, said the change affects around 3000 dairy farm employees whose temporary visas are set to expire by the end of the year.

"The dairy sector, farm employers and our farm employees on temporary visas have been calling on the Government to provide a solution. We are pleased they have listened," said Muir.

"We are about to go into the busiest time of the farming year with calving and urgently sought certainty that farmers would be able to keep their existing staff."

On Tuesday the Government announced that migrant workers who were previously subject to a 12-month stand-down period and would have been forced to leave New Zealand this year will now be able to stay for the duration of the extension.

"We need these people. They are key to our daily business on-farm," said Chris Lewis,  Federated Farmers immigration spokesperson.

A recently launched GoDairy campaign is seeking to attract Kiwis to fill the 1000 positions going begging in the dairy farming industry, but Muir says it's not possible to simply fill those roles with unskilled New Zealanders overnight. 

"In the medium to long-term we expect to see dairy's reliance on migrants decrease but it will take time - our migrants have skills we can't replace quickly, they are highly valued and they can help train Kiwis," Muir said.