4 Dec 2020

Dealing with a crunch - the fruit industry's labour shortage

From Voices, 9:00 am on 4 December 2020

Jaswinder Singh, Jass for short, has been growing apples and pears for the past 15 years as well as running a labour supply company in Hawkes Bay.

He's been struggling to make sure all his clients have their fruit trees thinned and vegetable and stone fruit picked on time, with his limited team of workers. 

"We tend to have shortages here in Hawkes Bay, but this is the worst shortage I have ever seen in my time here as a grower."

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Cart full of apples after picking in orchard

Photo: 123RF

Covid-19 lockdowns and border restrictions have seen groups of workers from Samoa and Vanuatu staying on past ther end of the last picking season. Jaswinder is a popular man, known to go all out to make sure his workers are looked after.

Most recently, he was in the news for having helped one of his seasonal workers, a pregnant woman from Vanuatu with all the necessary arrangements through her pregnancy while NZ was in lockdown. Unable to work or fly back home, she depended on her RSE employer - Jass's company, Teamworks - to help. Jass, the community along with other RSE workers rallied together help her during the time. The worker's baby was named after Jass's company's pastoral care manager - Maurane Vertut.  

About 14,000 RSE workers come to New Zealand each year. Growers and contractors like Jass are making do with some of the 6000 workers who stayed back since the last picking season. 

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Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

On a hot day in Hawkes Bay, the shines shines strong and relentlessly. The asparagus are ready to pick and there is no time to waste. What would normally be done by at least 15 people, picking is underway with 7 people. Picking under overhead sun isn't what they'd normally do. "They'd finish by 10 or 11 a.m in the mornings" says Jass. 

There doesn't appear to be much of a choice at the moment.

At the pear orchard and the vineyards, the warming temperature and recent rains are making everything burst in growth, which means a lot of thinning - an essential task to make sure fruit are plentiful and large. Simultaneously, stone fruit and now becoming ready to pick. So with limited labour Jass has been sending his boys to pick and prune in batches across different blocks and orchards. 

"Normally they would stay in one block for the day, but now we're dividing up for a few hours here and there. We really appreciate them doing all this, and our Hawkes Bay growers' community for understanding."

Jass has been advertising for more uptake of these jobs on Punjabi radio and is nowadays found frequently promoting Hawkes Bay as a great place to live. 

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Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

"Hawkes Bay is actually great- nice environment and there is work year-round actually, more people need to know this. We aren't seeing enough Kiwis taking up these jobs..hope this will change in summer."

"Soon we will need not only pickers, but packers as well."

Inside the pack house at JR's Orchards. Around 250,000 cartons of apples and pears were exported this season to markets in Europe and Asia.

Inside the pack house at JR's Orchards. Around 250,000 cartons of apples and pears were exported this season to markets in Europe and Asia. Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Koroi Hawkins

"At least now the government has decided to allow us these 2000 new workers in January - but I think it's not going to be enough."

It would come at a hefty price says Jass. Along with airfare, two weeks isolation costs and living wages, he'll have to fork out anything between $6000 to $8000 per worker. "Even if that's okay, we still need more workers to get through the picking till April."

There's about $1billion worth of fruit that will likely be ready for picking over summer, and with not enough labour, Jass and other growers fear a loss that looms.