New Zealand's five-stage plan to reopen the border has come "too little, too late" for the RSE Scheme and does not spell the end of challenges currently crippling the industry, officials warn.
They say more could and should have been done to avoid the crisis facing the 2021-2022 harvest season.
From 28 February, New Zealanders will be able to arrive back from Australia and expatriates from the rest of the world can return from 14 March.
Aotearoa was expected to open to foreigners from visa-waiver countries such as the United States no later than July.
For those who benefit from New Zealand's Recognised Seasonal Employers (RSE) Scheme, the move had come "too little too late".
"Whilst we're appreciative that the working holiday visas are going to be reopened, it's going to be too late for our harvest which starts in a couple of weeks," said Terry Meikle, the chief executive officer of NZ Apples and Pears.
"So for us, the announcement is too little too late unfortunately.
"We are expecting a pretty good crop, good quality, good volumes and the question on everyone's minds is are we going to be able to get the crop picked?
"We really don't know. With everything that's going on including in the Pacific Islands. There are a lot of variables in the air at the moment," Meikle said.
He wanted to see more emphasis placed on the industry and the Pacific island countries involved in the RSE Scheme.
Call for review of programmes
There are issues about skilled people being drawn into the RSE Scheme and Meikle agreed "that is something we need to front-foot in our policy review".
"We could also look at if we need to expand this through more countries. How can we have better labour mobility between the countries.
"How might we be able to think about programmes that can be mobilised between New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific islands?"
It doesn't have to be one-way temporary migration for working in the RSE, it could be both ways, Meikle said.
"Partnership from the get-go is vital to get this right. That we have governments on both sides, workers, employers.
"Everyone is needed around that table so we can formulate what I believe we can bring to the world a temporary migration scheme that other countries may want to use, may want to mirror.
"Temporary migration is going to happen whether we make full-proof programmes or we don't," Meikle said.
"But it's much better if we can have a programme that's going to work for all parties and create win-wins."
There were about 7,000 seasonal workers still in New Zealand last August, most of them stuck there due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The struggle to survive
Many employers expected to struggle to survive the 2021-2022 season unless they could refresh and increase their workforce through new recruitment.
In her research, New Zealand-based Charlotte Bedford of the Australian National University found there were normally over 10,000 workers at the peak of the RSE season in Aotearoa.
Following the New Zealand government's announcement, Bedford told RNZ Pacific echoed Meikle's comments that it had come "too little too late" for the industry.
Bedford said the labour supply had been a key challenge for the industry amid the pandemic.
Over 6,000 workers from Quarantine Free Travel (QFT) countries (Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu) were scheduled to come to New Zealand before March and if "we had those arrivals then we would probably be in a better position".
"Everything is constantly changing due to Covid and most recently, the eruption in Tonga, and Covid arriving in Samoa and they have a lockdown. It's so complicated," she said.
"I understand they are trying to get other countries involved as well. Are working holidaymakers going to want to come to NZ while we are battling an outbreak of the Omicron variant of Covid-19? Will there be much demand?
"For temporary visa holders, there's the issue of visa processes. Do we have the capability to process large number of visa applications once people are wanting to come?"
Bedford said in Vanuatu, there was the challenge in finding people who were fully vaccinated, Covid-19 testing requirements, supply of passports "so it's a complex environment to be working in".
"It's good the NZ border is reopening but with most of the RSE countries grappling with Covid - Solomons, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga - there will be constraints on workers including isolating when they arrive in New Zealand."
Bedford said it was going to be a "very difficult season. They are not going to have the labour that they need".
She said the RSE Scheme was expecting 1000 Tongan labourers for this season's harvest but with the Covid-19 restrictions imposed in the Kingdom including a nationwide lockdown, there had been a halt to the flights bringing the workers.
An Air New Zealand flight left the Tongan capital Nuku'alofa on 1 February and arrived in Auckland with passengers - 32 of them seasonal workers - and cargo from the island nation.
Tonga went into lockdown from 6pm on 2 February after port workers tested positive for Covid-19.
The government had confirmed that the two cases of Covid-19 were detected through routine testing at the wharf in Nuku'alofa.
"It's very unfortunate. Now they got Covid and a lockdown. We had about 1000 Tongans scheduled to arrive before the end of March and now we're not sure how long the lockdown will last and what the numbers will look like. It's very, very difficult.
"There is a lot of support for the Tongan seasonal workers in NZ. Employers are putting different measures in place to help those who are here and those who could not return home following the volcanic eruption and tsunami."
Tonga RSE liaison Tevita Lata welcomed the border reopening, but he wanted to see more dialogue between the government, employers and workers to increase the quota for Tonga in the NZ RSE Scheme.
"Tongans are desperate to find work to support their families and I would like to see a review of the age of those eligible to work in the RSE Scheme."
Lata said there was a need to help students who were now leaving school - many of them 18 years and older - who were capable of working on New Zealand farms to earn a living to support their families in Tonga.
He said the latest Covid-19 cases in Tonga had caused huge setbacks to getting workers to New Zealand.
"During the lockdown, movement is restricted and this causes delay for those wanting to process their visas. We are doing everything we can to help those in Tonga and workers already in NZ.
"Following the disaster last month, some seasonal workers in NZ particularly those from 'Eua, Vava'u and Ha'apai are still not been able to get in touch with their families. With the cable under repair, these workers may have to wait a little longer."
There are 800 Tongan labourers in the RSE Scheme.
Tonga joined Australia's Pacific Labour Scheme in 2019. Prior to that, Tonga had participated in the Seasonal Worker Programme for a number of years, providing almost half of the 31,000 workforce since 2012.
The 2020-2021 NZ harvest season was challenging, Bedford said.
"RSEs had wanted to know what, if anything, will be done to facilitate the return of larger numbers of Pacific RSE workers for peak harvest periods while New Zealand's border remains closed," Bedford said.
"This is especially the case for small RSEs, several of whom spoke at the conference. The stress they are under is palpable."
But with no end in sight to New Zealand's Covid-19 crisis, growers and workers in the RSE Scheme were uncertain what February and March 2022 might bring.