The value of migrant workers and the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme have been called into question by a report that concludes they do not benefit the economy when looking at the big picture.
The report, titled Picking Cherries, was carried out by The New Zealand Institute of Economic Research for the Productivity Commission
Report co-author Peter Wilson said although low-skilled migrants did fill labour shortages and grew the scale of what participating businesses could produce, they did not necessarily increase productivity overall.
"International research shows that the host country gets bigger gains if migrant workers and locals complement each other - so they have skills that complement each other.
"Before Covid we were seeing a lot of temporary migrants, especially students and working holidaymakers, who end up competing with locals for jobs," he said.
The RSE scheme began in 2007 and allows employers in the horticulture and viticulture industries to provide seasonal jobs for workers from overseas. It has grown from 5000 workers a year since it began, to more than 14,000.
Wilson said there was little evidence to show things like the RSE scheme were benefiting the country's economy.
"That's concerning, because New Zealand has steadily increased its use of migrant workers over the last 10 years."
Many in the horticulture and viticulture sectors have claimed RSE and migrant workers are vital, and without them fruit and produce would be left to rot.
"We hear that a lot around the world, but what we think needs to happen is employers need to think of more innovative ways to pick fruit that involve more capital, more technology, which might reduce the need for physical labour."
The report said international experience suggested that in the absence of readily accessible alternative sources of workers, productivity-enhancing alternatives to labour and skill shortages were more likely to occur, such as improving education and training, and increasing automation.
Wilson said he understood why employers turned to migrant workers.
"It's the rational thing for an employer to do - if you have a young, fit, motivated worker willing to do back-breaking work for seven days a week, and they're happy to be paid less than someone else, why wouldn't you employ them?
"But whether that's the right thing for New Zealand as a whole is what we are investigating."