16 Mar 2020

Horticulture looks to forestry to solve labour shortage

12:38 pm on 16 March 2020

Hundreds of forestry workers who have lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 outbreak are being offered work in the horticulture sector, which is desperate for labour.

KUMARA, NEW ZEALAND, SEPTEMBER 20, 2017: A forestry worker measures a Pinus radiata log at a logging site near Kumara, West Coast, New Zealand.

The Forest Owners Association estimates 1500 jobs could go this year. Photo: 123RF / Lakeview Image Library

However, many will struggle to make the same money... and some are warning the roots of the industry's problems go much deeper.

Many forestry contractors are running at a loss, trying to keep valued staff employed in the hope the log-jam in China from Covid-19 will free up in the next few weeks.

Up to a third of the country's logging crews have been stood down, and the Forest Owners Association estimates 1500 jobs could go this year.

The head of the Forest Industry Contractors Association, Prue Younger, said the industry was pinning its hopes on a long-awaited government relief package, which is expected to be announced tomorrow.

She welcomed moves by farmers and growers to take on forestry workers - but said forestry contractors were loath to lose skilled staff.

"As much as we hate to think we're getting rid of our people out of our industry and are unsure whether they will return, we certainly want to see them not impacted, making sure they can provide for their families and whānau.

"In that case we don't care where they go, we just want some opportunities for them to be employed."

Labour shortages are a perennial problem in the horticulture industry, which relies heavily on backpackers and workers from the Pacific through the Registered Seasonal Employer (RSE) Scheme.

1000 jobs going begging in horticulture

Horticulture New Zealand chief executive Mike Chapman said there were over 1000 vacancies across the industry - and a real risk that export windows could be missed or fruit even left to rot without enough workers to pick it.

The RSE scheme was "a win-win" for New Zealand and the Pacific, he said.

"Making that scheme work even better is the ultimate goal, but today we are looking to employ New Zealanders who no longer have a job as a result of what Covid-19 has done to trade."

There was also a risk Covid-19 could make workforce shortages worse for horticulture if global travel bans and border closures stopped workers coming to New Zealand.

"Obviously movements are going to become more awkward so we're on the cusp of having some real issues. So we're looking at how to deal with those issues in the best possible way."

The organisation is working with the chairs of the Regional Labour groups, the Ministry for Social Development and the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment (MBIE) to assess the impact of Covid-19.

Labour contractor Richard Bibby, who supplies workers to orchards and vineyards in Hawke's Bay and Marlborough, has been talking with the Ministry of Social Development and other agencies about getting recruits from the forestry industry - "but no-one has put their hands up yet".

However, he admitted that apart from forklift drivers and truck drivers, some may struggle to earn the same income they get in forestry.

"An apple-picker with three or four years' experience would probably get the same sort of hourly rate, but certainly first year it's going to be hard for them to make equal money."

The government estimates the Covid-19 outbreak cost New Zealand about $300 million in lost exports to China in one month alone, with forestry one of the biggest losers, along with meat and seafood.

Picking apples. A man with a full basket of red apples in the garden. Organic apples.

Photo: 123RF

Impact in Gisborne

That is a major worry in Gisborne, which usually exports 85 percent of its logs to China and where one in four families is connected to forestry.

Gisborne Mayor Rehette Stoltz said at least 280 people have already lost their jobs and up to 600 were at risk.

She was not impressed with the government's idea of redeploying forestry workers to other regions, such as clearing tracks on conservation land - and made that clear to Regional Development Minister Phil Twyford when he visited the region last week.

"Absolutely, we want to keep our works in the Tairāwhiti, we don't want to split whānau up. We want to make sure that everyone stays here and when everything is ready to go, they just start up again."

Things were already tough in the industry even before Covid-19 with a slump in log prices and an over-supply in China, Stoltz noted.

She has been assured by the government that work is going on behind the scenes to come up with a "Tairāwhiti specific" package.

"We put some practical suggestions like funding businesses to have a training day for staff who are down to four days a week or bringing forward some of those Provincial Growth Fund Investment [projects]....

"This is not going to be over in a month or even two."

Covid-19 puts spotlight on forestry industry's problems

Tokoroa truck driver Wayne Hill said he and many others in the logging industry were already down to three or four days a week back in October, before anyone had even heard of Covid-19.

Local manufacturers were unable to compete on price with China, which had led to four North Island sawmills closing in the last four months, he said.

"If Covid-19 hadn't surfaced its ugly head, we would have gone unnoticed and the general public would have been none the wiser.

"So Covid-19 has actually helped us, I hate to say it, but it's identified the problems we're having in the forestry industry."

A government relief package would not cut it for the timber industry, which needed regulation, Hill said.

Forestry workers were being forced out.

"They're going to have to survive - they've got mortgages to pay. People are losing one or two days a week and that's their mortgage payment or their rent. So they've got no choice, they're going to have to go."

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