Covid-19: Seasonal employment travel bubble with Pacific nations put on hold

The recognised seasonal employment one-way quarantine-free travel bubble between New Zealand and three Pacific nations has been put on hold as Delta cases continue to emerge in the Covid-19 outbreak.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced in August that Cabinet had agreed in principle for seasonal workers from Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu to travel to New Zealand without undergoing a two-week stay in MIQ.

The new travel corridor, aimed at helping industries that are reliant on seasonal workers from the Pacific, such as horticulture, was to get underway in September but has been put on hold because of the outbreak.

The bubble was designed to help industries reliant on seasonal workers, such as horticulture. (File image)

Bejon Haswell/Stuff

The bubble was designed to help industries reliant on seasonal workers, such as horticulture. (File image)

A chartered Vanuatu flight with RSE was expected into New Zealand on September 18, but it isn’t yet clear if the workers will need to undergo a two-week stay in MIQ.

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According to Vanuatu consul-general McKenzie Kalotiti, this was supposed to be the first quarantine-free flight from Vanuatu, but at this stage anything could change.

Vanuatu consul-general McKenzie Kalotiti.

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Vanuatu consul-general McKenzie Kalotiti.

It wasn’t clear if the workers would need to undergo mandatory quarantine, but Kalotiti said they would know more about the travel arrangements soon.

The incoming Vanuatu flight was also supposed to repatriate RSE workers in New Zealand, but the Vanuatu borders remains closed for NZ passenger flights until September 12 because of the Delta outbreak.

A spokesperson from Minister for Immigration Kris Faafoi’s office said negotiations were still progressing with Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu to establish the one-way quarantine free travel for their RSE workers.

“We hope to have arrangements in place soon,” he said.

“In the meantime, the horticulture and viticulture industries agreed to defer two RSE flights until quarantine-free travel arrangements are in place, in light of the current pressures we have on MIQ, with the current Covid Delta outbreak.”

Before the Delta outbreak, Vanuatu was the only country from the Pacific still sending RSE workers to New Zealand on charter flights to fill the labour shortages in the horticulture industry.

The Border Exemptions Ministerial Group had agreed to a second critical workforce class exception for RSE workers to enter New Zealand from mid-2021. One hundred and fifty workers could enter every 16 days.

Since July 4, a total of 299 RSE workers have arrived. The first group were 150 workers from Vanuatu and spent 14 days in MIQ in Hamilton. The rest arrived on July 21.

Horticulture New Zealand chief executive Nadine Tunley said they were keen to get the RSE travel bubble underway and get as many workers into New Zealand as possible.

Tunley said the travel bubble relied heavily on the Pacific leaders to agree to the conditions too.

She said the NZ government-imposed cap on RSE workers was 14,400 per season.

“The horticulture industry is gearing up for the coming season when seasonal labour needs become intense,” Tunley said.

“That’s when the RSE workers are needed the most, in addition to as many New Zealand workers as possible, given there are also very few backpackers in the country at present.”