The two-tier system that treats some essential workers as second-class workers
Tourism Vanuatu / Provided
Last October, 150 seasonal workers arrived from Vanuatu to help boost the struggling horticultural industry. Morgan Godfery says government policy treats these recognized seasonal employer program workers as “disposable.”
Morgan Godfery is a senior lecturer at the University of Otago. He is a regular opinion contributor to Stuff.
OPINION: One of the important things the pandemic revealed was that the distinction between “high-skilled” and “low-skilled” workers is more or less meaningless. The only designation that matters is that of “essential workers”.
Is a lawyer, for example, more important than a horticultural worker? The first is certainly a skilled worker, but does their law degree make him more qualified than the second?
As fruit rotted on the vine during the 2020 and 2021 shutdowns, diminishing export earnings and forcing some businesses to the limit, the answer is surely no. Essential workers – horticulture workers as well as supermarket workers, nurses and doctors etc. – were the people who held the economy and society on their shoulders.
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And so, the change in government immigration policy, prioritizing “highly skilled” workers over so-called “low skilled” workers, seems illogical.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that it’s impossible to cut sharp lines between the people an economy and society need to function and the people who are, of course, important, but secondary to the proper functioning of this economy and this society.
What makes a lawyer more dignified than a hotel employee? The lawyer would find it easier to gather enough points to earn a skilled migrant category resident visa, but as any Auckland or Queenstown business owner could tell you, the labor shortage lies in the hotel and accommodation industry. Why then should immigration policy favor the former?
The Minister of Immigration announces a new “Green List”, which aims to simplify applications and residence pathways for migrants.
Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi might say this is an oversimplification. Hoteliers can still hire foreign workers, bringing them into the country with the Accredited Employer Work Visa. Horticulturists can still hire foreign workers as well, bringing them into the country under the Recognized Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme.
But that is precisely the point – these visa categories are secondary forms of residency. Under the CSR program, for example, workers fly in from the Pacific, work for their employer for a set period of time, and leave after that period ends. CSR workers cannot apply for residency under this scheme, even as the pandemic has heightened their importance to the economy.
In 2021/2022, the CSR cap was raised to 16,000 on the admission that employers were still struggling to find New Zealanders willing to work in orchards for minimum wage.
And so, to fill that void, thousands of workers are disembarking flights from the Pacific, working their set time in the orchards, and then boarding back home.
In a way, it helps these workers provide for their families. They earn a salary that they might not otherwise have. But in another sense, it encourages their very exploitation. In 2020, the Newsroom found an employer threatening to suspend air travel and CSR worker compensation.
In 2009, when the scheme was still fresh, the media uncovered stories of employers deducting workers’ “expenses”, pushing their take-home pay below the minimum wage. These deductions were to pay for things like “housing” and “plane tickets”—expenses that employers were supposed to cover.
This reflects badly on those rotten employers, of course. But the real culprit is government policy. CSR workers struggle to access any remedy. When their visas expire, so does their work and there is no path to residency. This means that CSR workers are – perhaps almost literally – disposable.
A cohort arrives in 2022. Another cohort arrives in 2023. And it continues.
The problem with the government’s immigration reforms is that they entrench this two-tier system. So-called highly skilled immigrants are offered generous pathways to residency. But so-called low-skilled workers have to cycle in and out of the country without an equally generous route to residency. Or, in the case of CSR workers, with no path to residency.
The lesson of the pandemic is surely that CSR workers, as well as hotel and hospitality workers who enter the country on the accredited employer work visa, are essential. The implication of this is obvious: if these workers are essential, the government should treat them as such.
But Faafoi’s recent reforms reinforce the very system that treats essential workers as somehow less than traditionally “more skilled” migrants. This two-tier system should not last. If that’s the case, another lockdown, or maybe another virus, and the fruit rots on the vine again, we’ll wonder why we tolerated such an inflexible system as the CSR regime.