27 Apr 2018

Perfect storm hits NZ fruit industry

From Country Life, 9:35 pm on 27 April 2018

The chronic labour shortage which plagued Central Otago stone fruit growers and apple orchardists nationwide is now hitting the $2 billion export kiwifruit harvest.

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Photo: RNZ/Susan Murray

The industry needs about 8,000 seasonal workers to pick and pack the fruit. This year as the harvest kicks into full swing, kiwifruit orchards are short of over a thousand workers.

Harvesting gangs are 20 to 50 workers short, and packhouses are also well down on normal staffing levels.

Everyone's trying to be positive about the season, but Ian Fryer from Master Contractors, a body representing horticultural and viticultural seasonal employers, says the situation is "scary".

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Photo: RNZ/Susan Murray

Members have tried everywhere, looked everywhere, and they just can't find staff, he says.

The shortage is multi-pronged: fewer backpackers are opting to work in horticulture, unemployment is low so fewer Kiwis are looking for work, the apple crop was 10% larger, kiwifruit is 20% up, and Bay of Plenty's lost about 1,200 Indian students because regional business schools have closed down.

Normally about 14,000 young tourists, of the 70,000 annually applying for Working Holiday Scheme visas, would have looked for horticulture jobs but they don't need to do that anymore, says Gary Jones, a business manager with New Zealand Apples and Pears.

"If they land in Auckland and go to anywhere they'll find restaurants and all sorts of retail shops wanting workers so it's become a much more competitive space."

Both the apple and kiwifruit industries say they need the current cap on RSE workers (Pacific Islanders who come to NZ for up to 7 months) to be lifted.

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Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Organic apple grower John Bostock says if the government doesn't increase numbers over the next few years there's no doubt "tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars of crop will be wasted".

Hawkes Bay alone could absorb an extra 3,000 RSE workers next year, he says.

This season 11,100 came into the country.

Bostock says the government needs to address the labour issue in a balanced way and he's confident it will.