The first batch of overseas drivers for local agricultural contracting work is expected in the country next week, says Rural Contractors New Zealand (RCNZ) chief executive Roger Parton.
Parton told Dairy News that members are “delighted’ with the Government move to grant visas to 210 machinery operators, mostly from the UK and Ireland.
He says RCNZ is looking at a charter flight and is working with Ministry of Primary Industries and Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. The overseas drivers will undergo a 14-day quarantine before taking up driving.
Rural contractors have been urging the Government to relax border restrictions and allow experienced machinery operators, who come every year to ease a shortage of drivers.
Parton says rural contractors initially sought 700 overseas operators, including drivers who come to New Zealand on working holiday visas.
Some vacancies were filled by locals, former drivers who agreed to help out rural contractors cultivate, plant and harvest crops this year.
“We did another survey of members and came up with an absolute minimum of 210 drivers needed for this season’s work,” he says.
Parton says the Government decision took a bit longer than expected but contractors are happy.
Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi says as New Zealand continues on the path to recovery from Covid-19, it is important “that we strike the right balance between protecting New Zealand from Covid-19 and ensuring businesses have the critical workers they need to help in our recovery”.
Faafoi says the border visa exceptions are in response to concerns various sectors for critical workers.
However, he says the bar for being granted an exception still remains high.
“There will still be a number of workers across a range of sectors and businesses who do not meet the criteria to be granted an exception under this ‘other critical worker’ category.
“That is because any changes must still align with New Zealand’s tight Covid-19 border controls to limit the spread of the virus.
“We also need to continue coordinating the numbers of people coming across the border with amount of capacity available in managed isolation and quarantine facilities to cope.”
Federated Farmers employment spokesman Chris Lewis says it has been strongly advocating for exceptions for skilled operators of sophisticated agricultural machinery key to harvesting and other seasonal tasks for several months.
“The pandemic response disrupted long-established workforce arrangements,” says Lewis.
“We’re very pleased that Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi has now recognised it’s impractical to try and train enough New Zealanders in time to meet the immediate need, though that is the sector’s longer-term goal.
“Our sector hears the Government loud and clear on its desire to see more New Zealanders trained for these specialised roles, but until these people are available, upskilled, and willing to move to where they are needed, we need to continue to have a limited number of migrant workers able to re-join our primary industries after quarantine.”