Letting plant operators into NZ a bit late

Half of Bluegrass Contracting’s tractor drivers are new and have only two weeks’ tractor experience.

A last-minute decision by the Government –  at the start of maize-planting – to allow 210 agricultural and horticultural mobile plant operators to come to NZ for summer work is too little too late, according to one agricultural contractor.

“The biggest problem about this announcement for me is the Government wants business owners, such as myself, to pay for isolation of would-be staff we can get into NZ,” says Brook Nettleton of Bluegrass Contracting Ltd.

“My argument is what about all the other people they’ve let into the country – and have paid for their mandatory isolation requirements – that are not going to be earning any money in NZ or paying any tax here?

“Originally, I was going to try bring in 15 guys – and at $4000 each that’s a lot of money.”

Brooke says another snag is the time limit of six months for people coming to NZ under this class exception. “The announcement is all good and well – but our season goes to end of April – so it’s an eight-month season and this timeframe included their isolation of two weeks as well.

“So I feel the Government haven’t given this announcement a lot of thought. Also – we’ve spent much time in the last few months trying to find and train new Kiwi drivers – now they’ve come up with this option and we already have hired staff to train to drive our machinery. So what are we going to do?”

With the Government previously not budging on border exemptions for agricultural tractor drivers, Brooke held an open day in mid-August at his Te Poi business site near Matamata in a bid to attract more staff and highlight the issue.

He now has 13 tractor drivers for the season – but half have only completed a two-week tractor course, which puts much pressure on his business going into the busy season.

“We’ve got enough staff now but half have minimal training so they don’t have the experience behind them to confidently operate the machines this season, some of which are multi-million dollar pieces of machinery. So it will be mayhem for me to keep training them while delivering services to customers.

“If the Government had said in future we can only get 200 drivers for the industry into NZ and we had to hire so many Kiwis – that would be fine as we’d have time to train them. This season we don’t.

“We’ve run out of time. We’re planting maize now. If we’d done this back in June, it wouldn’t be an issue.”

In its announcement, the Government established class exceptions for border entry for a limited number of veterinarians, deep sea fishing crew, plus agricultural and horticultural machinery operators.

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi says tight border restrictions remain the backbone of the Government’s border strategy to protect NZ against Covid-19 and ensure NZ citizens and residents can return home.

“The Government understands the challenges the tight border restrictions create. We continue to review possible exceptions that would help address critical workforce gaps that cannot be filled by New Zealanders and help support the Covid-19 economic recovery, while ensuring our managed isolation and quarantine system can cope.

“We also know that because of Covid-19, more New Zealanders will be seeking work. When we consider exceptions for workers from overseas, we’re prioritising industries that can demonstrate a plan for education, training, wages and other activities that will attract New Zealanders into their sector.”


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