By Eric Crampton 16/12/2020

Late last month, the government announced it would allow 2000 seasonal workers into New Zealand’s Managed Isolation and Quarantine system on Recognised Seasonal Employment (RSE) scheme, with workers to arrive from January to March 2021. 

There’s just so much that’s backward in all of this.

The RSE scheme is open to workers from the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.

The most recent World Health Organization COVID-19 situation report for the Western Pacific notes that the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu have not reported a case to date – as of 25 November. Since then, Samoa has had two positive cases caught at their border.

Meanwhile, Papua New Guinea has large-scale community transmission – you wouldn’t want to restart RSE entry from there.

Does it make any kind of sense that scarce MIQ spaces are being taken up by people who come from places that do not have Covid-19? Why couldn’t we just admit RSE workers as usual from places without Covid, on an understanding that the gate would be shut if their Covid-status changed?

Does it seem plausible that the most valuable uses of scarce spaces in MIQ is for people coming in for fruit-picking, if those workers are coming in from places where Covid is prevalent? If it were the outcome of an auction for spaces, I’d take that seriously – I could too easily be wrong!

The policy simultaneously plausibly lets too many RSE workers into MIQ, and too few RSE workers into the country. It seems unlikely that the highest valued use of an MIQ space is for someone who would come in to pick fruit at $22/hour, but it also makes no sense at all that they be required to be there in the first place.

There are very reasonable concerns about Covid getting back to the Islands from NZ if we had an outbreak. But there are very reasonable ways of mitigating that risk that do not involve banning safe people from travelling here. For example, RSE employers could be required to provide isolation for workers before they went back to the Islands, with those returnees tested before departure.

Surely the odds of catching Covid are higher in a NZ MIQ facility, including in transport to those facilities with people who are coming in from far riskier places, than in the Covid-free Islands.

Recall the stakes on the RSE programme. Here’s John Gibson and David McKenzie on it.

Their abstract:

Seasonal migration programs are widely used around the world, and are increasingly seen as offering a potential “triple-win”- benefiting the migrant, sending country, and receiving country. Yet there is a dearth of rigorous evidence as to their development impact, and concerns about whether the time periods involved are too short to realize much in the way of benefits, and whether poorer, less skilled households actually get to participate in such programs. New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) program was launched in 2007 with an explicit focus on development in the Pacific alongside the aim of benefiting employers at home. We present the results of a multi-year prospective evaluation of the impact of participation in this program on households and communities in Tonga and Vanuatu. Using a matched difference-indifferences analysis based on detailed surveys fielded before, during, and after participation in the RSE, we find that the RSE has indeed had largely positive development impacts. It has increased income and consumption of households, allowed households to purchase more durable goods, increased subjective standard of living, and had additional benefits at the community level. It also increased child schooling in Tonga. This should rank it among the most effective development policies evaluated to date. The policy was designed as a best practice example based on lessons elsewhere, and now should serve as a model for other countries to follow.

Here are some of the gains:

The results show that the RSE has had large positive effects on sending households in Tonga and Vanuatu. We find per capita incomes of households participating in the RSE to have increased by over 30 percent relative to the comparison groups in both countries, with per-capita expenditure also increasing, although by less than income. Subjective economic welfare is estimated to have increased by almost half a standard deviation in both countries, and households have purchased more durable assets such as DVD players, radios, ovens, and in Vanuatu, boats. In Tonga RSE households also doubled the rate of home improvement, and in both countries, households became more likely to have a bank account, likely reflecting more formal savings. School attendance rates increased by 20 percentage points for 16 to 18 year olds in Tonga, and community-level effects were generally modest, but positive. Overall these results show that the seasonal worker program has been a powerful development intervention for the participating households, and that the RSE policy appears to have succeeded in its development objectives in the short run.

I’ve bolded the most important bits.

In order to prevent a trivial risk of Covid coming in from places that do not have Covid, the Labour Government is preventing the vast majority of RSE workers from coming in to do the seasonal work that they traditionally have done successfully. The consequence of that is, in all likelihood, a substantial decrease in incomes in affected households, declines in their subjective economic welfare, and reductions in schooling for those families’ kids.

I suspect, but cannot know, that the government is doing all of this deliberately, to kill the RSE programme. Sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice. Are the relevant officials being purposefully obstinate when they refuse to see obvious safe ways of getting those workers here and preventing transmission back to the islands? It’s hard to tell.

Featured image by Jen Theodore on Unsplash