On August 2nd 2016, many Tongan families began the long painful grieving process that follows the tragic death of a family member. Five men were instantly killed when they left their workplace in one of the major horticulture regions in New Zealand.  They were returning home from a days work in a kiwifruit cooling house when their car was hit side-on by an empty logging truck.  They had no chance of surviving.

According to news reports, four of these young men were part of NZ’s Pacific seasonal worker programme  – called the Recognised Seasonal Worker Scheme (the RSE).  It has been hailed internationally as successful in balancing the demand for workers in NZ’s horticultural industry, with the supply of underemployed people in the Pacific.

Pacific political leaders have long called for the mobility of labour between the Pacific and New Zealand and Australia. When these calls coincide with a shortage of semi-skilled labour in New Zealand, as it did in the 1970s and then again in the mid 2000s, the flow of workers from Pacific island states to New Zealand begins.

For the small rural communities in New Zealand who host these seasonal workers, a marked difference is made to their economies and to their social and cultural diversity, albeit only temporarily. For the small rural communities in the Pacific which they leave, there is also a marked difference – but one of absence and promise, hopefully only temporarily. These human sentiments are especially palpable at death. There is still very little understanding of the ‘costs’ that moving away has on local economies and wellbeing.

And, this is what the recently released World Bank/ANU Report on Labour Moblity: the ten million dollar prize (Curtain et. al. 2016) completely misses.  Pacific migrants are not ‘stock’ whose characteristics can be assessed and modelled in macro-economic projections.  Pacific migrants, like all people who move from their families and homelands to employment in distant countries, should not be reduced to figures in medium and high growth scenarios. Yet this is what the report efectively does.

Table One, entitled ‘Basic labour mobility and economic indicators for different Pacific country groupings’, identifies the ‘stock of emigrants’ from the ‘resident population’.  These groupings are the ‘stock data’ that constitutes the ‘extensive new research’ presented in the Report.  Assumptions used in the methodology show the limited characteristics assigned to ‘migrant stock’: their length of stay outside the Pacific, their average remittance behaviour, their average net income, their fertility (not disaggregated by gender or age), their gender, and their prior employment status.  This is typical of reports which rely on metropolitan data.

The use of human capital models such as that used in this Report is intended to provide insights into sustaining economic development in the Pacific and in New Zealand. The underlying basis of routinely discredited human capital models of labour and labour markets is the need to move labour to where ‘it’ is more  ‘productive’.

This might work well with the industrial capitalist models from which human capital approaches first emerged where ‘labour’ was merely a ‘factor’ of ‘economic production’.  But this does not fit with the diverse economic practices in the Pacific where ‘work’ is also ‘practice’ of ‘social reproduction’.

Consider the sizable carbohydrate rich root crops and banana gardens, and the significant protein catches in the sea, rivers and pig enclosures.  Work is the means by which families in the Pacific are fed; cultural and social exchanges are practised; and future ambitions lie. Work transforms these resources into food or gifts, and this work is variously performed by men, women and children.

Pacific island countries are well known to be relatively small in relation to other developing  countries whose coastlines are lapped by the Pacific Ocean. And this has long been problematic for macro-economic analysis. Instead, fortunately, there is a regular supply of more nuanced case study research, and increasingly this is undertaken by descendants of migrants or those with lived experience in the Pacific.  This research documents the interlinked social, economic and cultural impacts of labour mobility in the Pacific. It shows the tensions and sacrifices involved in deciding to work abroad.  It shows the tangible economic benefits and often less tangible social costs.

All states have a responsibility to govern and provide for its citizens, including those in the Pacific. It is a big responsibilty and requires some big thinking and brave re-thinking. Perhaps delinking labour mobility from trade negotiations is good place to start.

Evidence to inform this thinking needs to come from a range of sources, a variety of methodologies and a diversity of people. The important part is to keep one’s eye on the ball so that the right kinds of policy tools are developed to support the right kinds of work for the right kind of livelihoods.

There are no stock answers – but there are lives at stake.


Written in memory of Halani Fine, Koli Vaipulu, Sitiveni Vaipulu, Sione Teulaka, and Samuela Taukatelata.

Associate Professor Yvonne Underhill-Sem teaches Development Studies at the University of Auckland. She is also the Lead Researcher for the Labour Markets for Sustainable Economic Development for NZIPR, University of Auckland.