The shortage of horticultural workers due to Covid-19 border restrictions is putting $9.5 billion of the country’s economy at risk, says New Zealand Apples and Pears chief executive Alan Pollard.
About 10,000 seasonal workers would be needed starting from next month to prune and pick $1 billion worth of fruit across Hawke’s Bay alone, he said.
The shortage had the potential to cripple the region’s economic recovery.
“This just cannot happen.”
Minister of Immigration Kris Faafoi said the Government was "actively looking at additional options" to support the agricultural sector.
“We are acutely aware of the pressures Covid-19 is placing on that sector, as well as many others across the economy," Faafoi said.
“But the Government is also conscious of the need to ensure New Zealanders, who have lost jobs due to Covid-19, have the chance to redeploy into new jobs.
Thousands of New Zealanders are facing unemployment because of COVID. We need employers to make every effort to give those people new job opportunities, and we know many are.”
Employers needed to make every effort to give new job opportunities to New Zealanders left unemployed due to Covid-19, he said.
During lockdown kiwifruit businesses employed about 70 per cent New Zealanders, with some businesses employing up to 90 per cent, compared to around 50 percent last season, he said.
A joint statement from the industry body, Hastings District Council and Hawke’s Bay Regional Council highlighting the problem was made on Friday.
Growers facing the serious labour shortage because of border restrictions were working to entice more Kiwis, the organisations said.
The horticulture and viticulture sectors met with the region’s leaders this week to plan for the pending shortage, which will affect harvest time, around February, the most.
There were a very limited number of Registered Seasonal Employers (RSE) workers and backpackers still in the country, while Pacific workers who would normally travel to New Zealand were also being invited to Australia for its recommenced Seasonal Worker Programme.
Solutions being considered in Hawke's Bay were attracting unemployed Kiwis, school-leavers and tertiary students for the summer break and using workers from corrections facilities on day release.
Employers might also offer more flexible working hours or use technology to lower the physical requirements of workers.
Hastings mayor Sandra Hazlehurst said if the fruit was not picked, it would put thousands of permanent jobs at risk.
“More than 8000 local people are permanently employed in Hawke’s Bay in and around the horticulture and viticulture sectors, from pack-houses to the port.
“But these permanent roles depend on the trees being planted and pruned and the fruit being picked, all of which is looking more and more difficult.”
Business manager of agricultural worker supply company Thornhill Nick Bibby said there had been a worker shortage even before Covid-19, and he had even fewer applications from local workers these days.
Nor were Kiwi workers “apples for apples” with RSE workers, who worked on average 15 hours more a week, he said.
“Here it’s going to be a serious issue come November if we can’t get more in. What we’d really like is to quarantine them in our own facilities,” he said.
Thornhill took workers from corrections facilities on day release every year, and was doubling the number this year to 24. It was also planning to run a recruitment campaign to attract workers from other parts of the country come October, but Bibby still didn’t believe there would be enough workers.
The Government could be more innovative in its approach, he said noting that Australia was offering a discount on student loan repayments to students who worked in the fruit industry this summer.
“The problem is the bureaucracy. Everything takes so long to get any clearance on things and get decisions made. Meanwhile, the fruit is still growing.”
Responding to Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern’s election pledge to relax border rules for skilled workers if re-elected, Bibby said by then it could be too late.
“It doesn’t need to be a bribe. Why wouldn't you do that now?”
Bibby said at between $25 and $27 an hour, pickers and pruners were highly skilled. With many coming from Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands where there hadn’t been any cases of coronavirus, “Why shouldn’t they be relaxed?” he asked.
Remuneration was likely to go up this year because growers would probably be forced to pay more to get the apples off the trees, he said.
Hazelhurst said the council had been asking for more flexibility with the RSE scheme to allow in workers from Covid-free countries, “just like they did successfully during the alert level 4 lockdown”.
She said she would be meeting with Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi later this month to address the urgent matter.