Covid-19 pandemic may pose risks for seasonal programmes in NZ and Australia

    The Coronavirus pandemic has the potential to have a major affect on the regional seasonal workers’ programme which allows Pacific Islanders to work in New Zealand and Australia.

    Tonga is one of the three  major suppliers of labour to the programme.

    But restrictions on travel to New Zealand and Australia and the ban on international flights in a number of Pacific nations, including Tonga, could mean that thousands of workers may be unable to take up positions this year.

    Equally large numbers could be trapped as their work visas come to an end.

    Australia’s seasonal work programme grew by 44% in 2018-19, or by some 3000 workers, after a cap on workers numbers was removed.

    New Zealand increased its cap on seasonal numbers to 12,850 workers in November 2018, a 16% increase on the previous year.

    In 2018-19 Tonga supplied about 30% of the Pacific seasonal workers, second only to Vanuatu which supplied more than 40%.

    Dr Victoria Stead from the Alfred Deakin Institute in Melbourne, said that in Australia the horticultural industry was in the middle of the harvest season and the demand for labour was at its highest.

    “Temporary migrant and local seasonal workers are picking fruit, harvesting vegetables, and sorting and packing crops in packing sheds across the country,” she wrote in the Guardian.

    “Thousands of these workers are Pacific Islanders, working under the Seasonal Worker Programme which provides strictly curtailed visas intended to fill demands for, particularly, seasonal horticultural labour. “

    Many groups of workers were due to return home, but were unable to do so.

    Other groups of workers, due to arrive in Australia, were unable to leave their homes as Pacific nations closed their borders.

    While visas might be extended, Dr Stead asked what would happen if they did not want to keep working beyond their contract period.

    “For those who do continue working, what are the health implications and risks of doing so?” she wrote.

    “Workers in packing sheds work in close proximity for long hours, and pickers often live in crowded, shared accommodation.

    “If sheds, orchards and other food production sites shut down amid health concerns, what will be the financial impacts?

    “If and when workers do return home, how will we ensure that we are not sending potentially infected people back to countries and communities across the region whose health systems are ill-equipped to manage the crises that widespread Covid-19 infection would produce?”

    In New Zealand, Kiwifruit growers say that more than 1300 seasonal workers due to arrive in the country in the next two months cannot make the journey.

    New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers chief executive Nicky Johnson said the horticultural sector was highly reliant on seasonal workers from the Pacific Islands to harvest crops and do winter pruning.

    According to a report in Stuff, the kiwifruit harvest, which runs until the end of June is ready to be picked and shipped, but growers do not have enough workers to get the fruit off the vines.

    Growers report instances of Island workers whose contracts are coming to an end, but can’t leave New Zealand. If they do not get their visas extended, they will not be able to work and have already sent all their money home. 

    The main points

    • The Coronavirus pandemic has the potential to have a major affect on the regional seasonal workers’ programme which allows Pacific Islanders to work in New Zealand and Australia.
    • Restrictions on travel to New Zealand and Australia and the ban on international flights in a number of Pacific nations, including Tonga, could mean that potentially thousands of workers will be unable to take up positions this year.

    For more information

    Australia’s food supply relies on migrant workers who are facing coronavirus limbo

    Coronavirus: Horticulture sector short 1300 seasonal workers

    Local business can’t compete with Seasonal Worker pay rates

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