John Roughan: Labours immigration policy could do lasting damage to Pacific

OPINION:

Next Sunday Jacinda Ardern is scheduled to make another of those nauseating apologies for the past, this time for the “dawn raids” against suspected overstayers from the Pacific Islands that happened a few years before she was born.

It’s not just the assumed moral superiority of the present that always gets up my nose, it’s also the injustice to people now dead and unable to speak for themselves. It makes me wonder what apologies the future might make for things governments are doing now.

One potentially regrettable project is particularly ironic. The Prime Minister who will apologise for the dawn raids next weekend is presiding over an immigration “reset” that could do far more lasting damage to the Pacific Islands than the clumsy policing their New Zealand expats suffered in the 1970s.

It surprises me that a Labour Government takes a dim view of seasonal work that enables Pacific Islanders to come here and earn some good money picking fruit for a few months. In a recent TVNZ item on our travel bubble with the Cook Islands we heard people there lamenting the loss of their younger people migrating permanently to New Zealand.

We also heard from some of those intending to move here with mixed feelings about leaving the warmth, cultural and climatic, of the islands. I can well understand that. How good would it be to earn some decent money in a New Zealand summer and spend the rest of the year at home in the tropics?

How good it must be for the islands to have that money spent in their economies, enabling young families able to stay there. It’s surely better than depending on New Zealand aid. What is there for a Labour government not to like?

Its fear, as with all immigration, is that migrants may be taking jobs from New Zealanders, to which horticultural employers protest they would gladly employ Kiwis if they wanted the work, and of course they would. Employers could avoid the hassle of immigration permits and the cost of accommodation if locals were willing to pick fruit.

But that is not the important issue. The fact of the matter is, seasonal fruit-picking jobs are not the jobs young New Zealanders ought to be doing.

One of this Government’s dearest projects, close to its heart even before it came to power, is to raise the general level of incomes in New Zealand by improving the skills and productivity of the workforce. You don’t do that by forcing employers to pay higher wages so young New Zealanders will be enticed to go and pick fruit somewhere for a few months every summer.

That work perfectly suits visitors from poorer countries or richer ones on a working holiday; it is the polar opposite of work Kiwis should be seeking. This is so obvious I can only suspect the Government has other motives for letting crops rot on the ground rather than allowing growers to bring in enough pickers, suitably quarantined.

Covid-19 has been a convenient excuse to suspend all categories of work permits, leaving many industries crying out for skilled staff. But ominously, Labour ministers and the economists they listen to are saying it will not be a matter of simply turning the tap back on for immigration once the pandemic has passed.

Peter Wilson of the NZ Institute of Economic Research, said exactly that in an interview in the Weekend Herald of June 19. Wilson’s work with NZIER colleague Julie Fry, is said to have inspired an immigration policy review for the Government by the Productivity Commission.

For someone who has co-authored two immigration studies, Wilson was not certain of very much, often citing a need for more data. But their second paper does at least acknowledge the benefits of the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme to the Pacific Islands.

“Studies suggest the RSE scheme is world-class when it comes to its development goals. Compared to other aid programmes, the RSE scheme provides residents of sending countries with substantial incomes and skill development opportunities compared to what is available locally, albeit with some costs to the families and communities left behind.”

As for the workers’ conditions here, “rising accommodation costs, stagnant wages, some questionable employer practices and unanticipated wellbeing costs for families are evident, but participation in the scheme is still highly sought-after”.

So why stop them coming? “There is little good evidence from New Zealand that recent large increases in temporary workers are boosting long-term productivity at the firm level.”Translated: without seasonal workers, orchard owners might invest in robots or crops that require less labour – or space rockets maybe.

While the Productivity Commission ponders questions any business can best decide for itself, fruit will be rotting on the ground again. It’s a crying shame.

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