Covid-19 upends Tonga’s seasonal workers program


By Kalafi Moala


Nuku’alofa, Tonga – Seasonal workers from Tonga continue to be sent to Australia under the Seasonal Workers Program (SWP) despite the temporary restrain for Tongan workers sent to New Zealand under the Recognized Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme.

The reason for the restrain to the RSE despite a decision by New Zealand to allow 2000 seasonal workers from the Pacific from January to March is because Tonga is unable to meet certain criteria of the new program, which includes a guaranteed return flight home at the end of the season.

Workers from Pacific nations of Samoa, Vanuatu, Solomons, and Fiji confirmed their participation in the horticulture and viticulture seasonal work, but Tonga passed.

CEO of Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA), Dr. Fotu Fisi’iahi said there are limited quarantine facilities in Tonga, and they can only repatriate 248 people every three weeks due to the capacity of the current quarantine buildings.

He said: “We have close to 4000 Tongans stranded in New Zealand, Australia, and other parts of the world, some of them worse off financially than RSE workers, living with families, living in garages, and not earning any money.”

“We need to prioritize those families to ensure they get back home safely and feeling well.”

“We also have 1400 plus Tongans in New Zealand already doing RSE work, so we have to get them back to Tonga once they’re finished to then take part in the new program,” Dr. Fisi’iahi said.

He also explained that the 2000 workers allowed into New Zealand from January to March will be divided up among the four Pacific countries that are participating in the new program. But Tonga will miss out on this.

CEO of New Zealand Apples and Pears in Hastings, Alan Pollard, said the discussions on the new criteria was between the Tongan and New Zealand governments.

“And from what I understand, Tonga is not in a position to do that this time,” he said.

The first two repatriation flights to Tonga arrived in mid-January with a total of 238 passengers from Samoa and Auckland. These were quarantined for 14 days at the Tanoa Hotel, and Makeke Camp. Taliai Camp and the Kupesi Hotel were also used later as quarantined facilities.

Last week however, Ministry of Health announced that quarantine will now be extended for 21 days. The original arrangement was that quarantine was provided for by government in the facilities mentioned, but that an extra 7 days of quarantine was to be carried out “at home”. This may not have worked well, and MOH therefore had to enforce the 21 days quarantine.

But all this process brought about by Covid-19 explains why Tonga could not comply with the criteria required by New Zealand, in guaranteeing a return flight back to Tonga for those in the new program arrangement.

The impact of COVID-19 on the seasonal workers scheme for New Zealand and Australia does have its social downside, not only as Tonga misses out on the new program for New Zealand, but also the toll it has on workers that want to return home to their families yet are stranded.

In interviews with some of the workers employed by the Apple Company of New Zealand, who have been away from home for 1 year, there is one thing common among them; it is the very deep desire to get home yet feeling helpless because they cannot.

Workers are generally away for a period of seven months at a time.

Sitiveni Lu’au of Mata’aho, ‘Eua said he has been on the scheme for the last seven years, seven months each time, but he has been away now for a year. They usually are away from October and return in May, just before Winter. “I really want to go home,” he said.

Letio ‘Aho said the difficulty this time is COVID-19. “We usually are back home by May!”

Saimone Metui talks about how much they sacrifice themselves for the sake of their families. “It’s when we think that we are here for the sake of giving our families a better life, that is what helps us to endure.”

Andrew Taufa talks about how his work has helped his family to build a house and get a vehicle. “Those are the benefits that allow us to work hard and endure the loneliness,” he said.

Talaiasi Vea said: “It is easy to endure the hard work. We just need to keep control of ourselves to be able to meet our goals.”

Sepuloni Fe’ao says that even though some of them work for only two days a week when they are stranded, “but because of the government subsidy, we are able to send almost our whole pay home to Tonga.”

Meanwhile, Tonga continued to send seasonal workers to Australia, during the Covid-19 pandemic.

On January 22, a chartered flight solely for seasonal workers flew to Tasmania via Brisbane. “We send 152 people every second week to Australia for work,” Dr. Fisi’iahi said.

On February 14, there was a special flight from Brisbane, Australia with 107 repatriated passengers. Most were seasonal workers, but there were civil servants, students, and other Tongans who were stranded in Australia.

The flight back to Brisbane carried 100 seasonal workers from Tonga.

Tonga participated in the labour mobility programs since 2007 with New Zealand’s Recognized Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme; and with Australia’s Seasonal Worker Program (SWP) in 2012; and the Australia New Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) in 2019.

The programs help to address labour shortages in New Zealand and Australia and provide low and semi-skilled Tongans opportunities to work overseas temporarily and return to Tonga with some skills.

Studies by the World Bank have identified that the net income generated by Seasonal Workers in Australia alone, over the period of five years (2012 – 2017), was up to AUD$99 million, outweighing our export receipts, foreign direct investment inflows and even foreign aid.

It is estimated that the amount from the New Zealand RSE workers may even be bigger than the net earnings from Australia.

Thus, the income that flows into the country from the labour mobility schemes is not only a direct help to the Tongan families of the workers, but also is becoming a key pillar in the economic development of Tonga.

Such is the importance of employment to this country, and especially when the labour mobility employment become a means of exporting our human labour force for foreign exchange.


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