Thursday, 06 May 2021 14:25

Coping with labour shortages

Written by Staff Reporters
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Bay of Plenty kiwifruit grower and employer Sean Carnahan. Bay of Plenty kiwifruit grower and employer Sean Carnahan.

Kiwifruit is a Kiwifruit is a key sector for the country's horticulture industry and contributed almost $2 billion to communities across NZ in 2020. Covid-19 has thrown a major spanner into the country's harvests by severely limiting the number workers, many of whom would usually come from overseas. Mike Murphy of NZ Kiwifruit Growers Inc. talked with Bay of Plenty grower and employer Sean Carnahan about the challenges.

Mike Murphy: How have you personally, and as an orchard owner and manager, found it over the past 12 months?

Sean Carnahan: Under Alert Level 4, during the 2020 harvest, we lost a lot of our workers because they were retirees and were required to stand down for obvious reasons. But we were able to backfill with people from our Katikati community who were out of work because their businesses had shut down.

They came from all walks of life and the skillsets were amazing. They got us through the harvest; we were pretty fortunate. Our biggest challenge was managing our workers’ anxiety around Covid-19. As an employer I had to make sure they felt comfortable at work and manage their anxiety – and over time it did lessen.

MM: What has helped you and your operation ensure the crop will be successfully harvested in 2021?

SC: One of the things we’re trying to do with our casual employees, who are interested in longer term or permanent work, is to develop new activities over the preharvest period so they can work through to harvest.

Accommodation is an issue particularly for people out of region or backpackers. We’re putting in some accommodation on our orchard to meet that need – around 30 beds. We’ve also got pretty good pay rates available, particularly if people are skilled and experienced.

MM: What has had to change in terms of your preparations for this harvest?</strong

SC: With Covid-19 and lockdowns still a risk, we’ve looked long and hard at what we had to do last year during lockdown – the processes and precautions we put in place around social distancing and so on for our packing and picking gangs. The same will apply this harvest if we should have to go back into a Level 3 or 4 lockdown.

MM: How is the season looking both in terms of the crop and successfully getting it to market?

SC: The positives out of last year were that it was probably the best weather we’d had for many seasons in my memory, which really helped with the harvest. Will we get weather like that this year? Possibly not. We have more fruit to pick this year in the same timeframe and if we have any weather disruption that be challenging.

MM: Looking out to 2022 and beyond, how do you see the industry changing and evolving?

SC: As an industry, we need to be able to manage for those weather uncertainties – that stop-start issue. We need to manage our harvest maturity programme better to be able to provide a steady flow through the packhouses in good time. That will take time to resolve at a higher level – we’re not there yet - but there’s work happening to address the issue.

MM: What do you think needs to happen to avoid any future labour issues for the kiwifruit sector, and indeed the primary sector in general?

SC: Our biggest problem is that everyone in the primary sector is competing for the same pool of labour. And without the natural migration of people into the country taking up casual roles because of the border closures, it’s definitely heightened the competition.

It’s not just about the money either; regardless of the pay rates on offer there’s a big issue in that people are not very transient. There’s a cost to moving around that discourages people coming in from out of region. I do think the Government could relax some of the restriction on workers coming in, from the Pacific Islands for instance, under the RSE scheme. The Government might also revisit the working holiday visa (WHV) programme – maybe offer WHVs for three years rather than six months or a year.

MM: What else would you like to see happening in the industry in future?

SC: Effective resolution of the labour problem is the biggie, but the industry could also look at how automation might help. There’s clearly work happening to automate some aspects of the postharvest processes but the financial case for putting in expensive technology isn’t strong yet.

MM: What’s your recipe for having a successful kiwifruit growing business?

SC: There are probably five ingredients to that:

  • Managing your labour and looking after your workers - that's critical
  • Having good relationships with your funding providers - in good times and in challenging times
  • Staying connected with you industry and being active in helping it progress
  • Understanding the risks within the business and mitigating those as well as you can – and a big part of that is concentrating on the things you can control and not wasting time and energy on the things you can’t – a good Stoic principle
  • And make sure you actually enjoy what you're doing.

MM: What do you see as the attractions for people to work in the kiwifruit sector, either in a casual, seasonal role or a more long term or permanent one?

SC: I think the biggest attractions are the diversity and variety of work that are available – of which picking and packing are just a part. And it’s a growth industry; it has an exciting future with plenty of opportunities for employment.

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