10 Jun 2021

Horticulture, dairy industry leaders welcome visa extensions but still have concerns

12:21 pm on 10 June 2021

The horticulture and dairy industries are welcoming the government's six-month extension for about 10,000 Working Holiday visas and Supplementary Seasonal Employment work visas due to expire this year.

Work visa application form

File image. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Border exceptions will also be made to allow another 200 dairy workers and 50 vets into the country.

It comes with some conditions - employers paying under the median wage will need to check with the Ministry of Social Development to see whether a registered job seeker from New Zealand is available first.

But while horticulture and dairy leaders are thankful, they say more is needed.

HortNZ chief executive Mike Chapman told Morning Report his industry's focus was on seasonal workers.

"That's around when we are in harvest, but this time of year, pruning. We are very short of workers at the moment. We are very short of our skilled workers, this will help. In a normal year we have over 40,000 backpackers in the country, so we are talking one quarter, 10,000 backpackers.

"We are losing them to Australia every day at the moment. Australia has better conditions on offer, so this is a very important step forward to try and keep some of those people in this country as we go forward.

"But we are facing a real crisis for our seasonal workers as we go into the spring harvests and into summer."

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Mike Chapman. Photo: Supplied / Mike Chapman

The industry was hopeful for another visa extension that would help ensure workers were available for the next summer season.

"We can't rely on people who have been stranded in New Zealand to meet our labour needs, but that's what we are doing. What we do need to do is get a Pacific bubble open with Covid-free countries. That's where our focus is, to try and get that Pacific worker movement that we always had pre-Covid running again.

"That's how we'll ... successfully, to a degree, get into harvest as we come into summer."

Dairy NZ chief executive Tim Mackle told Morning Report they were "extremely relieved" but while it was a step in the right direction, it would not solve the worker issue for the dairy industry.

"I think we are probably about 2000 workers short ... we are looking for full-time employees, not short-term, seasonal employees ... this is a step in the right direction and it'll help. It'll certainly help particularly in the regions like Canterbury, Otago, Southland, where we particularly need more migrant workers, (it's) harder to find workers down there.

"It's a good shot in the arm for Canterbury farmers who have been hit hard by the floods last week."

Mackle said it had been a "long discussion" to get to this point.

DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle.

Dairy NZ chief executive Tim Mackle. Photo: RNZ / Alexa Cook

Chapman said Hort NZ had been doing a lot of work to get more New Zealanders employed in the industry.

"We have some really extensive programmes getting New Zealanders into permanent jobs, and that's our real focus for New Zealanders. Give them a great career in horticulture ... which pays really well and it's a career that'll take you through the rest of your life with real satisfaction.

"It's the seasonal worker element that we need to get right because that enables to keep growing, that enables us to contribute to the recovery, and it means we can employ more permanent New Zealanders."

Asked about accusations of dairying making "half-hearted efforts to get New Zealanders into the industry", Mackle said "It's been an issue for us for some time, needing to attract more Kiwis, part of that has been driven by the growth of the sector. We've swapped a lot of sheep for dairy cows ... but what that's come with is a lot of jobs ... so that means we need more workers...

"We have got a strong need for migrant workers as part of the mix where we are but we recognise we need to keep attracting Kiwis."

Attracting young New Zealanders into dairying long-term was a big focus for DairyNZ now.

"We've got to work on workplaces, health and safety, but also pay rates, they've gone up a lot. You can walk off the street into a first entry-level farm job on a dairy farm and get just short of $50,000 a year and in quick time be in a manager's role on about $80,000 a year, so it's a very well-paid sector to be in."