Picking season: where are the workers?

Hort Talk
with Mike Chapman
HorticultureNZ CEO

The apple and kiwifruit harvests are underway,  and winter pruning  is approaching.  

Before we know it, spring will be here and we will be harvesting asparagus, strawberries and new season’s vegetables.

This will be quickly followed by cherries and other summer fruit.

Seasonal workers are needed for harvest and pruning because these are jobs that only last for a few months.

Having enough seasonal workers is vital for good quality produce, high returns, horticulture’s continued growth, and increasing the number of New Zealanders employed in permanent positions.

When insufficient seasonal workers are available, the complete reverse is true: less crop is harvested and quality is down because harvest cannot be done at the optimum time.

This results in lower returns and rural economies suffering, putting the permanent employment of New Zealanders under threat.

Some growers may go out of business in what is a vicious downwards cycle.

Worker outlook

New Zealanders are nearly half horticulture’s seasonal workforce.

About a third are workers from the Pacific through RSE temporary immigration scheme – the workers return home after the season.

The rest are backpackers getting their overseas experience.

This season there are far fewer RSE workers and hardly any backpackers.

Depending on how many additional New Zealanders can be attracted to horticulture, we are short across all our crops – including wine grapes – by 5000-10,000 workers.

We predicted the problem and have been working with the Government to find solutions.

That is why the Government authorised the movement of 2000 RSE workers from the Pacific, starting in mid-January this year. This decision is a great help and we are appreciative but unfortunately, it is not enough.

In the meantime, programmes to attract New Zealanders through pay, accommodation, meals and transport have been running.

However, horticulture will still be short of seasonal workers and the economic impact on businesses and communities will be lasting.

The way forward

We are an innovative and solution focused industry. We continue to develop ways through which to meet the seasonal labour shortage.

None of them, apart from increasing the movement of workers from the Pacific, will alleviate today and next season’s requirement for more seasonal workers.

We also have the issue of workers who have been stranded here for some time.

They need to be repatriated home.

We believe our industry’s collaborative view is the best option. We need to be able to return to the pre-Covid flow of Pacific seasonal workers, both ways.

This can be achieved through the creation of a Pacific workers’ bubble, where the workers and the villages they come from  are vaccinated.

On arrival in New Zealand, these workers would remain in their bubble for the first  few weeks.

Similarly, when these workers return home, they would go back into their bubble for a few weeks.

This solution is predicated on a health-based risk analysis, linked to the fact that the Pacific is Covid-free and that New Zealand’s Covid controls have kept most of the country free from community transmission.


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