How often do Pacific seasonal workers return to New Zealand?

At different times during the first 15 years of the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme’s operation, there have been concerns about whether employment opportunities are being fairly shared between new recruits and return workers, or whether RSE jobs are predominantly given to return workers who have developed the requisite skills and experience desired by RSE employers.

In our last blog we looked at participation numbers and their implications. In this blog we examine the frequency of return of 36,675 individual RSE workers who have, between them, accounted for just under 102,000 RSE arrivals into New Zealand from Pacific countries between 1 July 2007 and 30 June 2022.

The extent to which RSE workers return for multiple seasons of employment is a useful indicator of the impact of RSE participation on Pacific-based households and communities. In particular, it provides evidence on two things: whether RSE employers are disbursing employment opportunities or re-recruiting the same workers over time which, in turn, may generate inequalities between participating and non-participating households; and whether individual RSE workers are becoming dependent on seasonal work and the associated income, as evidenced by their return to New Zealand year after year.

To derive reliable estimates of return, the actual moves by each recipient of an RSE visa need to be linked over time. Of the 36,675 RSE workers (each with a unique client code issued by Immigration New Zealand) who were recruited over the first 15 years, 44% (16,095) only appear once in the database of 101,850 RSE visa arrivals.

In other words, 44% of Pacific RSE workers have only participated for one season. The remaining 56% (20,580) of RSE workers have returned to New Zealand for seasonal work at least once between 2007 and 2022.

Table 1 summarises the number of RSE recruits, by country, who have been employed for a single season, or who have returned for more than one season. The countries with the highest return rates are Solomon Islands and Kiribati, both with return rates of 61%. They are followed closely by Tonga (58.5%) and Vanuatu (58.2%). For Samoa and Fiji, equal numbers (50%) have participated for only one season, or been recruited for two or more seasons. Nauru has the lowest return rate at 33%.

Table 1 also shows the average number of visits RSE workers from each Pacific country have made over the first 15 years. Earlier analysis on worker return rates under the Australian and New Zealand schemes found the average RSE worker made 2.6 visits between 2007 and 2017. With the addition of another five years of data, the average has increased to 2.78. This increase will have been affected to some extent by COVID-19, when travel restrictions meant some RSE workers remained in-country performing seasonal work for multiple seasons without the option of returning home. Nevertheless, what this data illustrates is the relatively low average number of visits by RSE workers over the 15-year period.

For the 20,580 RSE workers who have returned at least once, the number of seasons they have been employed over the 15 years is shown in Figure 1. In all nine countries, more than 50% have returned to complete a total of two or three seasons, with Fiji (77%) and Nauru (75%) having the highest shares in this category.

For Fiji, the higher share in the 2-3 season category can be partly attributed to the country’s late entry into the RSE scheme in 2016, when a ban on Fiji’s participation following the 2006 military coup was lifted.

Nauruans have been eligible for recruitment since the scheme began, but it was not until March 2015 that two RSE employers included 20 Nauruans in their RSE workforces for the first time. Of the 60 Nauruans who have been recruited by RSE employers since 2015, only 20 have returned for a second or subsequent season. To date, Nauruans have not shown great enthusiasm for seasonal work under the RSE scheme or Australia’s equivalent Seasonal Worker Programme (Nauru has contributed labour to the SWP in only two years since the program began on 1 July 2012: 10 workers in 2012-13 and 17 workers in 2015-16).

Almost a quarter (23%) of all Pacific RSE workers have returned for seasonal employment in four or five seasons. For Vanuatu, Samoa and Tonga – the three main RSE supply countries – as well as Solomon Islands and Fiji, the percentage of return workers who fall into this category is very similar, ranging from 22% to 24%.

The shares of workers who have returned for six or more seasons of RSE employment are more variable, reflecting a complex combination of factors. Vanuatu, Samoa and Tonga have the highest numbers of workers in the 6-9 season category. However, the highest shares belong to Kiribati (23%) and Tuvalu (21%). This is due to a mix of small annual numbers of RSE recruits and long-standing employer preferences to re-recruit certain groups of I-Kiribati and Tuvaluan workers.

While there are RSE workers who have been back to New Zealand virtually every year since the scheme began, the shares who have returned for ten or more seasons are small from all Pacific countries. Overall, only 5% of Pacific RSE workers fall into this long-term category. In other words, there are not sizeable numbers of RSE workers who engage in seasonal work as a long-term employment strategy.

In summary, there are two key takeaways from the data on RSE worker return rates.

First, over the scheme’s first 15 years of operation, close to half (44%) of all Pacific RSE workers have only participated for one season. This is higher than expected and demonstrates that RSE employers are distributing seasonal work opportunities, instead of becoming over-reliant on return workers.

Second, for workers who do return, the majority take part for two or three seasons. The percentages coming back for four or more seasons are smaller than is generally recognised, indicating there is a natural churn in retention at the two-three season mark. This helps to allay concerns that dependence on RSE employment by individual workers (reflected in their repeated recruitment every year) is becoming a widespread problem. That said, dependence on RSE employment may still be occurring within households if RSE jobs are passed between family members.

For Pacific governments that might be reviewing their participation in New Zealand’s RSE scheme, the fair distribution of RSE opportunities between new recruits and return workers, and the fact that many workers only participate for two or three years, should be considered when contemplating any measures (such as term limits) to manage the supply of seasonal labour to New Zealand.

In essence, the RSE scheme is operating as intended. The majority of RSE workers and their families are taking advantage of seasonal work opportunities in New Zealand for a relatively short period of time, often to achieve quite specific social and economic objectives. For most RSE participants, engagement in seasonal employment overseas can be seen as one of several livelihood strategies to enable families to improve financial security and wellbeing at home.

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This research was supported by the Pacific Research Program, with funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The views are those of the authors only.

Charlotte Bedford

Charlotte Bedford is a research fellow with the Development Policy Centre and is based in New Zealand.

Richard Bedford

Dr Richard Bedford is Emeritus Professor at the University of Waikato and the Auckland University of Technology.


  • Another perspective that could be further investigated might be the oft-quoted concern that it is predominantly qualified persons leaving government, teaching or other formal sector jobs to go and work on the RSE and other similar programmes.

    Depending what information is included in the original RSE visa-grant application this analysis might be possible, alternatively such data could perhaps be sought from either census or household surveys.

    If the data indicated that the longer-term RSE workers were drawn largely from the more qualified applicants, this would also assist Pacific governments in developing their policies towards term-limits.

    • The scenario raised was recently discussed in Vanuatu media and therefore has been raised as a concern.

      For a Vanuatu perspective the predominance is heavily in favour of workers who have primary or secondary education. (In my agency’s case, 1% zero education, 70% primary education, 25% at least one year secondary, 3% at least one year tertiary, 0.6% degreed).

      Such data is not captured in a 403 visa application.

      The Act here states that a seasonal worker who holds a degree can only apply if they have no current employment or have written permission to go working from their current employer. So going by my (statistically significant data size (n=976)) the scheme is not affecting what you call the formal sector.

    • Thanks for this comment, David, which I have just seen.

      As far as I am aware information on the occupation and qualifications of RSE visa arrivals is not collected in NZ or at source in the country of destination.

      Tonga’s Statistics Department did include some questions on participation in labour mobility schemes in their 2021 Census, at our request. We are in the process of analysing these data now and will keep your point in mind as we work through what the data tell us about characteristics of participants in the Australian and NZ schemes.

      The results of our analysis will be reported in a blog in due course.

  • This is an interesting and timely read, as well as the Bedford’s earlier post on the RSE numbers. (Pacific seasonal workers’ participation in the RSE scheme: the numbers and their implications).

    A stand out, covered by the article is the longevity of a seasonal worker. Every few years there are calls to put a time limit on RSE workers from various interest groups and countries. This data shows that such limits are unnecessary, with the average falling below the usually recommended length of 3 years.

    One factor that may skew the data down a bit is when NZ increases the quota. This causes a significant bump in the “1 year” data with a net reduction in average years. It would be interesting to see what happens in future years as those first years roll through, but I would expect the average to increase.

    When considering a Ni-Vanuatu worker’s socio-economic perspective, (likely similar to other Pacific Islands) their three basic needs are school fees, pay land and build a house. These are mostly achieved by Year 3 or 4 if they are in the right employment. Usually longer for those on the SWP/PALM program which surprises many. (NZ employment law being more economically favourable for seasonal workers than the Australian Fair Work regulations – that is another story!)

    Another factor not considered is the effect of the SWP/PALM program (Australian schemes) and how many RSE workers crossed the ditch to those programs. So again, the average time a seasonal worker spends across both schemes should be considered especially from an sending country’s policy decisions. The PALM program also allows for up to a 4 year visa, or short term 3 year (read seasons) visas. The impacts on whether those workers re-apply past that initial visa is to be determined in, well, 3-4 years!

    • Thanks for your comments, Dan. These are greatly appreciated. I’ll respond briefly to your key points starting with the last one about the effect of the SWP/PALM programme on the RSE, and especially the numbers of RSE workers who have been participating in both programmes.

      As you will appreciate it is impossible to get data from immigration records in New Zealand or Australia on the numbers of workers who are either participating in both schemes in a given 12 month period or who have switched from one to the other. However, there is some useful information on this in Tonga’s latest census results and a blog will appear shortly touching on this issue.

      Your point about changes in the RSE cap causing surges in the numbers of 1 season workers is a good one and this is discussed at greater length in a longer report on patterns of engagement with the RSE that can be accessed at
      Your point is an important one because new recruits in any given season have not had a chance to re-recruit and therefore are in a different position from one-season workers who first recruited two or more years earlier and who could have been re-recruited for a subsequent season if they (or their employer/contractor) had wished.

      The key point we wanted to make in this blog is the one you identified: repeat return is not a major problem at the aggregate level. Robust data on the participation of 36,675 RSE workers over a 15 year period suggest that regular, repeat recruitment for seasonal work on the RSE scheme is not as widespread as is sometimes believed. This emerges very clearly when the analysis is restricted to the patterns of engagement of those who have returned to work in subsequent seasons (excluding the one-timers).

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