Industry representatives met with Finance Minister, Grant Robertson in Hawke’s Bay earlier this week to discuss challenges facing the regional fruit and wine industry. The main item of discussion was around labour pressure for the coming grape, summerfruit and apple harvests - pressure that will see more than 10,000 seasonal workers needed.
Industry welcomed the Minister’s positive message that the government understood the issue facing these industries.
"With backpackers and Pacific seasonal workers down by 50,000, the industry is facing an incredibly difficult task across New Zealand this season," says New Zealand Apples and Pears Inc (NZAPI) chief executive Alan Pollard.
To help address the labour shortage, Mr Pollard says the industry has an extensive range of programmes underway to attract Kiwis into work.
"The industry acknowledges its responsibility to do all it can to create opportunities for New Zealanders to access seasonal work. But during the peak of harvest it will still not be enough and our industries will need more help. Allowing RSE workers from COVID-free Pacific Island countries back into New Zealand has low to no risk.
"Countries such as Tonga and Samoa have never had a COVID case. It makes sense to be very cautious, of course, but if we are ever going to extend our bubble, this is the perfect opportunity."
It was not lost on Minister Robertson that Helen Clark was instrumental in starting the Pacific Island migratory labour scheme back in 2007. It has lifted thousands of Pacific Island families out of poverty at the same time creating thousands of full time jobs the New Zealand horticulture and wine industries.
Newly released figures show fruit industry export values were up 10.1 percent and wine up 14.8 percent in July 2020 compared to 2019.
"Even in the face of COVID-19 hitting our markets we are performing exceptionally well. This is not about recovery but opportunity," says Mr Pollard. "We got the sense the government will support our industries and the very important part we will all play in our economic recovery.
"The recently announced extension to RSE visas for those workers still stranded in New Zealand was welcomed, but we need urgently to extend to working holiday scheme visas to allow people to work in the horticulture and viticulture industries. Currently there are only 22,000 of these visa holders in New Zealand and normally at harvest time there are 45,000. What’s worse, is that without a work permit extension they are leaving the country and there will only be 5,000 here by January."
NZAPI is working with MSD to create opportunities for the unemployed or to redeploy displaced workers; working with Corrections to employ day release prisoners; and working with tertiary institutions to mobilise the student population.
Mr Pollard added that during his visit the Minister acknowledged the labour challenges the horticulture industry is facing and the importance of early certainty around labour supply.
"Minister Robertson has committed to respond to us in the next two to three weeks with an update on the support that Cabinet can provide, and we are confident that we can agree on solutions that satisfy our respective priorities".
The Prime Minister’s ‘Fit for a Better World’ blueprint for how the primary sector will lead New Zealand’s post-COVID recovery was also discussed. Mr Pollard says the industry - that up until now has continued to operate to maintain food security, support jobs and generate sales that have in turn supported provincial New Zealand during the pandemic - urgently needs government support to agree policy changes that are necessary to enable industry to continue to deliver these benefits to New Zealand.
"We did not seek direct government assistance during the pandemic, but now the certainty of access to a reliable labour supply requires urgent government intervention, through policy changes to visa extensions and the return of workers from Pacific nations."