The new New Zealand Institute for Pacific Research last week put out what seems to be its first blog post, critiquing a report I co-authored on Pacific labour mobility. For reasons that I cannot understand, the author, Yvonne Underhill-Sem, has chosen to situate her critique of our report within the context of the recent, tragic death of five Tongans – who had come to New Zealand under the RSE program – in a car accident in New Zealand. The article begins with an account of their death, and ends with a dedication to the memory of the five named individuals. It dishonours the dead and cheapens the tragedy to drag this incident into an academic argument over labour mobility to which the incident itself, as far as I can tell, bears no relation.

Turning to the substance of her article, Underhill-Sem’s argument is that our report ignores the costs (or ‘costs’) of migration.  To the contrary, we challenge the assumption that the social impacts of labour mobility are necessarily negative and we include a discussion of how to reduce those impacts which are negative (see Section 7.3 “Policies to manage the social impact of labour mobility”). We also present evidence of the desire of many in the Pacific to migrate. Many more Pacific Islanders would work in New Zealand to pick fruit and vegetables if the RSE cap was lifted. New Zealand’s Pacific Access category is massively over-subscribed. Pacific governments are increasingly strong supporters of labour mobility. It is very hard to reconcile this demand for migration at both the individual and governmental level with the idea that migration is costly for the Pacific. Taking the approach, as we do, of trying to increase labour mobility while containing negative social impacts seems very sensible.

The article is full of misunderstandings and false claims. One of Underhill-Sem’s strongest objections, which pops up at several places, is about language: that we refer to the stock of Pacific migrants. Her claim seems to be that this dehumanizes the migrants and suggests a one-size-fits-all approach. But when discussing migration, it is important to distinguish between stocks and flows. Hence the use of the term; its’s as simple as that. The author also claims that the only new research we have undertaken is a single table in the report. That’s just nonsense. See p. 5 of our report for a summary of the new research which feeds into the report.

Finally, Underhill-Sem dismisses the sort of analysis we have undertaken in favour of “nuanced case study research”. I agree that case studies are very useful. And I would be no means claim that our report comes close to saying everything that could and should be researched and said about Pacific labour mobility. But the author’s dismissal of our approach sits uncomfortably with her claim that we need a “variety of methodologies”.

Professor Stephen Howes is Director of the Development Policy Centre, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.