Many Recognised Seasonal Employers expect they will struggle to survive the 2021-2022 season unless they can refresh and increase their RSE workforce through new recruitment.
More than 300 stakeholders in New Zealand's RSE scheme gathered in Nelson last month for the 14th annual industry-led conference 'RSE: The Post-Covid Future'.
A New Zealand-based researcher said compared with the last RSE conference in Port Vila, Vanuatu in 2019, which focused on sustainable growth of the RSE scheme to support expansion of New Zealand's horticulture industry (including wine), this year's meeting was a "sobering event".
Australia National University research fellow Charlotte Bedford said the conference had possibly the largest turnout of RSE employers, contractors, industry representatives and other stakeholders for several years.
Many RSEs were at the conference to hear from the Minister of Immigration about access to seasonal labour for the upcoming 2021-22 season, she said.
"RSEs had wanted to know what, if anything, will be done to facilitate the return of larger numbers of Pacific RSE workers for peak harvest periods while New Zealand's border remains closed," Bedford said.
"This is especially the case for small RSEs, several of whom spoke at the conference. The stress they are under is palpable.
"There are some big players in the RSE scheme - the four largest RSEs accounted for 27 percent of all RSE recruits in 2018-19. But the majority of accredited RSEs are small enterprises.
"In 2018-19, the last full year of RSE recruitment before the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were 147 RSEs recruiting RSE labour. Of this, 40 percent recruited fewer than 20 workers each, while 66 percent recruited fewer than 50 workers each."
Open borders for seasonal workers
The government last week announced it was lifting restrictions for RSE workers to New Zealand from later this month. The new measures would allow workers from Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu to bypass MIQ.
Bedford welcomed the move, saying the government's RSE border exceptions -while welcomed by the industry - were of limited benefit for small RSEs.
"At around $9000 per worker, it's simply too expensive for small enterprises to access Pacific workers who must go through government-run managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ).
"Instead, these small RSEs have been reliant on accessing workers who are already in the country via sharing arrangements with other RSEs, and/or on using any local labour they can find, even though turnover of local temporary workers is high."
The 2020-2021 season was challenging, Bedford said.
Not only did producers grapple with a shortage of seasonal labour due to Covid-19 border restrictions, they also dealt with freight disruptions which impacted on getting fruit and wine to export markets, she said.
In some regions, severe weather events adversely affected crop volumes.
"Crops were harvested, largely through extensive efforts to share RSE labour across regions for peak periods and campaigns to get Kiwis into seasonal jobs. But the general shortage of labour meant fruit wasn't necessarily picked in prime condition, in turn affecting export quality.
"The impacts of the border restrictions on RSEs were also highly uneven. Many small enterprises, especially vegetable growers, reported major challenges with getting their crops harvested, and in some instances RSEs were forced out of business due to a shortage of seasonal workers and the ensuing loss of crops."
There were about 7000 seasonal workers still in New Zealand, with majority of them stuck here due to the Covid-19 pandemic, she said.
Call for amnesty to overstayers
Meanwhile, migrant advocates said border exemptions for seasonal workers from the Pacific only add insult to injury for overstayers in New Zealand.
While it was a step in the right direction, the Migrant Workers Association said the scheme was missing an important requirement.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Cabinet would also consider allowing in people who may have critical medical conditions from one of the countries where quarantine-free RSE workers could travel from.
Ardern wanted to get the system up and running first.
But Migrant Workers Association president Anu Kaloti said undocumented workers already in the country posed no risk.
The demand for workers could be met if the government granted amnesty to about 14,000 overstayers in New Zealand, she said.
The amnesty would also give the recent Dawn Raids apology by the government "real meaning and from repeating itself."
"We are not opposed to more workers coming into the country, but there has to be some sort of priority order. It makes more sense to give those overstayers work rights so that they can actually can become a part of the official economy. No doubt, some of them would already be working unofficially and possibly in the horticulture sector.
"The Tongan princess said at the Dawn Raids apology in the Auckland town hall that there needed to be some action. Many other members of the Pasifika community and other associations and unions have been calling for an amnesty. So it would be a more respectful of the community and it would give a deeper meaning to the apology that was delivered."
A long-time RSE employer said removing the border restrictions was a huge relief for the seasonal workers who had been stuck in New Zealand for more than 18 months.
Levin-based strawberry and asparagus grower, Geoff Lewis, had 20 staff whom he said had arrived six months before last year's national Covid-19 lockdown in March.
The labourers had been waiting for free-flowing cross-border travel ever since, Lewis said.
"This will mean us able to get them home and get another group here. They didn't want to go home until they had some confidence that they were able to start their normal employment cycle which tends to be seven months in New Zealand and five months back home.
"We employ a lot of long haulers who are people who have been here, workers who have been here since before Covid so they had already done about six months' work in New Zealand when Covid shut us down.
"They've been here a long time and they've been very very loyal, not only to us as employers but also to their families and their communities because they really are the only source of income now for their whole communities back home and they're sending the money back there."
Lewis said his long-term RSE workers were the only income providers for their families back in Samoa.