Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has acknowledged the key role of the primary industries sector over the last nine months.
Chief executive Nikki Johnson told Hort News the closure of NZ’s borders due to Covid-19 means that there will be lack of overseas workers – especially recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers from the Pacific Islands. She says normally there are about 14,000 such workers available, but for the coming pruning and harvesting season, this number is expected to be cut to just 4,500.
Johnson says, on average, the workforce in the kiwifruit industry comprises about 50% New Zealanders, 25% -30% back packers – with the rest RSE workers.
“While we are only about 20% reliant on RSE workers, there is pressure on the industry finding replacements for those workers because they are very reliable and highly efficient,” she explains. “Replacing a RSE worker is quite difficult to do.”
From now until December, it’s summer work time in kiwifruit orchards – bud and fruit thinning and general orchard maintenance – tasks that RSE workers are skilled at. Johnson says, at present, there are about 6,000 RSE workers in NZ. However, many will be heading home as flights become available – leaving just 4,500 will stay in NZ for the coming season.
Johnson notes that many RSE workers who were planning to come here didn’t make when the border was suddenly closed in March. Since then, the kiwifruit industry has had to ‘share’ workers with other horticultural sectors – in particular the pipfruit sector.
“The pipfruit sector will also be trying to access some of those 4,500 workers at the same time as us, so we anticipate that there will be an issue in terms of shortages. Especially in the early harvest period, until apples start to come back and we can bring these people into our regions,” she told Hort News.
Backpackers have been another major source of workers for the kiwifruit sector and Johnson estimates that there are about 13,000 of them on working holiday visas in NZ. The visas of some of these people were due to expire so the government is now allowing them to apply for visas known as supplementary seasonal employees (SSE).
This means these backpackers can now only work in the horticulture and viticulture areas and cannot, for example, stay on and work as a barista.
“However, we still don’t know what access we will have to these backpackers and that adds to the uncertainty,” Johnson adds.
“We will be focusing on the backpackers that are in the country and making sure that they know about the opportunities available in kiwifruit during the fruit picking season.”