Apr 13, 2021 Last Updated 11:41 PM, Apr 12, 2021

New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme which enables the country’s farming enterprises to employ seasonal workers on their farms and pack houses from overseas— notably from around the Pacific Islands region— is undoubtedly a success story. Thousands of seasonal workers from Vanuatu, Kiribati, Samoa, Tuvalu, Tonga and the Solomon Islands work at dozens of horticulture and viticulture facilities around the country, sending millions of dollars in earnings back to their home countries. Last month, Vanuatu celebrated five successful years of its participation in the RSE scheme.

The Melanesian nation, which unlike other Pacific Islands nations had a traditionally low volume of remittances, has seen a marked increase in remittance inflows since it began participating in the scheme in 2007. Vanuatu has been one of the most enthusiastic participants with over 1700 men and women currently working in New Zealand hired by more than 40 employers and some 2300 who have worked in previous years. Several workers are here now on their fifth stint and are looking forward to more years of gainful employment. Over the years, the workers have honed their skills and improved their work ethic to become more efficient.

In a recent letter to the Vanuatu Commissioner of Labour, Lionel Kaluat, New Zealand Department of Labour’s National Manager Emily Fabling said one of New Zealand’s major RSE employers had noted that ni-Vanuatu workers’ productivity had increased each year. “When the first seasonal workers from Vanuatu began arriving in the small farming towns and communities in 2007, locals thought they were newly resettled refugees from some African country,” says McKenzie Kalotiti, Vanuatu’s High Commissioner in New Zealand. “But today they are part of the townscape, adding great cultural diversity to the places where they live and work.”

Last month, workers from Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu joined Christian choirs comprising a wide mix of ethnic communities in an annual ‘Many People, Many Songs’ celebration in Nelson in the South Island. This was the fifth year of their participation. “It’s great for the community to be able to appreciate the cultures of our guest RSE workers, given that they play such an important role in the local horticulture and viticulture industries. “It is an excellent opportunity to learn about each other’s cultures and, for RSE workers, to give something back to the Nelson community,” Fabling said.

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"Every time the plane comes in to land on one of our Pacific Islands countries, as it flies low over so many beautiful green islands, I think to myself—how nice it would have been if our people had an option to live on them,” Kiribati President Anote Tong told me in the course of an interview in his office in Tarawa in October 2008. “There are hundreds of uninhabited but habitable islands in the South Pacific Ocean.”

Last month’s announcement that Kiribati was considering purchasing one of the islands in Fiji has the potential to fulfill the recently re-elected President’s longing. The announcement received wide coverage. The President’s office then issued a hurried rejoinder stressing that the idea of the Fiji acquisition was solely from an investment point of view. The clarification is understandable, given the sensitivity around the issue. Kiribati has been in the spotlight in recent years as being one of the island nations that is most threatened by sea level rise. President Tong has campaigned tirelessly at all sorts of world forums, especially at the climate change mega jamborees from Bali to Cancun.

Though it has been designated as one of the most “vulnerable” islands threatened by climate change and sea level rise, the funds promised at successive climate meets for adaptation and mitigation projects have come in a mere trickle for Kiribati. And the biggest question of all—what to do when push comes to shove has remained unanswered. Mass migration— and the big issues and problems that come with it—has been discussed many times, but there is far from a consensus in the world community about what to do with climate change refugees.

Climate scientists would have us believe that such an eventuality is a question of when, not if, but world organisations have left the issue in the too hard basket and it has never formed part of serious public discourse at least thus far.

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Most people around the world would be happy to see the back of 2011 and look forward to January 2012 being a harbinger of better times despite the widespread trepidation of grim fore- bodings wrought by some interpretations of the Mayan calendar. What a year 2011 has been. Disasters of all kinds—whether natural or financial—have befallen the people of so many nations around the world. A series of hugely destructive earth- quakes, massive flooding, tsunamis and dozens of tornadoes brought many parts of the world to the brink. 

This string of natural disasters and altered weather patterns set the backdrop for climate change negotiations in Dur- ban last month—but the world by and large decided to postpone the possibility of working towards any definite solution, thus avoiding confrontation. The one that caused the most wide- spread concern on a global scale were the earthquake and tsunami that conspired to create a nuclear disaster in Japan, sending shock waves across the world. For New Zealand, the early part of last year was eminently forgettable. The Pike River disaster and the Christchurch earthquakes are the worst New Zealand has seen in its history. 

As if natural disasters were not enough, the worst of the global financial crisis un-folding slowly and menacingly since 2008, came to a head last year with countries virtually going bankrupt. What the natural disasters did to life, limb and property, the financial disasters did to people’s wealth and that of entire nations.

The situation has gotten so dire that what was one of the world’s wealthiest regions until a couple of years ago—the Eurozone—is on the brink of collapse. Fifty years in the making, the Eurozone was hailed as a great example of coop- eration that was achieved among countries that were at the throats of one another fighting wars not much more than a couple of generations ago. 

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