8 May 2018

'People will choose to go hungry rather than work in a packhouse'

12:54 pm on 8 May 2018

The Bay of Plenty kiwifruit industry has reached the limit of willing local workers and paying staff more won't make a difference, a picker and packhouse manager says.

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People picking kiwifruit (file photo) Photo: RNZ/Susan Murray

A labour shortage has led to a rule change so overseas visitors can work as kiwifruit pickers in the Bay of Plenty over the next few weeks.

The region needs an extra 1200 workers to pick and pack a bumper kiwifruit crop over the next month.

There are 6000 unemployed people in the area.

Kiwifruit company Apata employs more than 1000 people and will harvest and store about 10 percent of the region's kiwifruit this year.

Managing director Stuart Weston told Morning Report about 60 percent of his staff were locals, with the rest made up of workers from the Pacific and backpackers.

He said he did not think raising the pay rate would attract more local labour.

"We think that we've really reached the very limits of what's available ready and willing to work, irrespective of the money.

"And that's evidenced by the fact that already [Work and Income New Zealand] have a system of stand down if people choose not to work in our sheds and inexplicably people will choose to go hungry rather than work in a packhouse."

He said the agency had been working hard to attract people to the industry but it had been having "decreasing levels of success".

"We're sending vans to Murupara, Tokaroa, Whakatāne and Rotorua - we're just trying to reach out further and further to capture people who wish to work," Mr Weston said.

Working with kiwifruit was hard work, and people who have been on an unemployment benefit struggled to cope with full-time work and could be unreliable, he said.

Bay of Plenty's National MP Todd Muller said while more could be done to help people transition between the benefit and the casual work, workers should be taking a more long-term view on employment.

"I think people should be looking at any opportunity, to move off the benefit to move into the industry, because it's not just a four-week or a six-week or eight-week job, increasingly there are more opportunities for people to carry on, to support the industry for 10 or 11 months of the year," Mr Muller said.

National also said the government should encourage people on the benefit to take up short-term seasonal work because having to go back on a three-month stand down for the benefit after taking up a job could put people off work.

There were systemic issues such as multi-generational welfare dependence, and these would not be solved by asking a seasonal employer to throw them in a shed and work them hard, then wonder why they could not handle it, Mr Weston said.

"One dimensional answers just don't work, we need far better quality conversations."

He said his staff's pay ranged from minimum wage to $30 an hour depending on their role.

Some employees were charged about $120 a week for accommodation.

'It's not so simplistic that we just boot them off the couch' - Minister

Labour MP Willie Jackson listening to evidence in Select Committee

Labour MP Willie Jackson listening to evidence in Select Committee Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Minister of Employment Willie Jackson told Morning Report there were barriers to locals taking up the jobs including the distance to travel to work, and family and whānau responsibilities.

He said the government wanted to work with growers to get sustainable careers for local people beyond the seasonal picking cycle.

"What we're trying to do is we are trying to understand where a lot of our people are at. Why we have inter-generational unemployment, why we've got people so disillusioned.

"It's not so simplistic that we just boot them off the couch."

Mr Jackson said the worker shortage was a legacy of the previous government who had not supported growers.

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