23 May 2018

Kiwifruit ‘crisis’ – how hard is picking really?

From Checkpoint, 5:23 pm on 23 May 2018

The kiwifruit industry remains at a loss as to how to solve its self-described worker crisis.

The seasonal labour shortage of 1200 pickers and packers that was announced three Mondays ago has now halved to 600, after widespread media coverage and help from the Ministry for Social Development.

Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated chief executive Nikki Johnson told Checkpoint pack houses were still not running at capacity and would likely stay that way.

That's despite kiwifruit giant Zespri's profit - increasing from $35.8 million in the 2015/16 financial year to a forecast $170m in the upcoming financial year.

Most kiwifruit growers have shares in Zespri.

Ms Johnson said she did not know if the worker shortage could be fixed by paying pickers more.

"It's a give and take situation, and it's something that will play out as we understand the labour market a bit better."

Picking kiwifruit is physically demanding work that often pays close to the minimum wage.

The brief length of the season and because kiwifruit cannot be picked in the rain makes it hard for orchards to attract staff.

Ms Johnson said the industry was aware of these problems, highlighting a recent New Zealand Kiwi Growers Incorporated survey that found the average wage across its growers was $21 an hour.

"But when you average that over the number of hours available in a week where it rains, is that enough?

"We've got a real perception issue that people think it's a minimum wage job, so, we can't really say. If people knew it was $21-an-hour, or more, because that is the average, would that attract them to the roles? That's what we need to understand."