Saturday, April 20, 2024

Crop surge pinned by labour shortage

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The kiwifruit industry has pulled on many levers to try and boost employment options for locals as traditional RSE worker and backpacker sources dried up over the past two seasons.
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Typically, overseas workers would form almost 50% of the industry’s 20,000-plus seasonal labour force. But last year RSE kiwifruit workers were sliced back by half to only 2000, as the country also emptied of backpackers heading home under the pandemic shadow.

Over the past three years, NZ Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated (NZKGI)’s Labour Attraction campaign has managed to increase the local labour supply by 3500 staff.

Boosted by support from MPI and the Ministry of Social Development, the sector has invested $100,000, its single largest yearly expense, to get those staff and lifted its portion of locals employed to almost 60% of labour supply.

Much has been spent on orientation sessions for potential staff and promotion, with the body’s KiwifruitJobsNZ providing an efficient social media platform to promote vacancies.

The campaign also included the sector boosting the minimum wage paid to the living wage rate ($22.75 an hour) and providing more flexible working hours to accommodate single parents and retirees. It was the first horticultural sector to make the move and has been quickly followed by most other employers.

However, the coming years have newly appointed NZKGI chief executive Colin Bond admitting there is a sense of panic about where additional workers are going to come from.

Demand surge for staff is significant.

As a sector it will require 28,000 seasonal workers for harvest by 2026, up 5000 from this season.

He admits it has been only thanks to an extraordinary level of cooperation in the industry that growers and packhouses got through this season.

“The volume of crop is coming. We will be in the very real situation of having even more demand for staff, and even less supply. It is already too late for winter pruning this year,” Bond said.

The sector’s record 180 million trays this year is likely to be up by another 10 million trays next year and again each of the following two years, as SunGold licenced orchards start to hit their production peaks.

He says NZKGI is advocating strongly for increased RSE access for the 2022 season and beyond, with increased quarantine capacity specifically for migrant labour.

Like most in the sector, he would also like to see a clearer outline of longer-term government policy on RSE numbers.

Outgoing chief executive of Horticulture NZ Mike Chapman says the horticultural sector is pushing to get 14,400 RSE workers for next year.

“If we could vaccinate Pacific Island workers we think we can get to 14,400,” Chapman said.

“Then, the conversation is: ‘is 14,400 enough going forward from there?’”

But he also challenges the concept of the RSE cap and is advocating for it to be scrapped.

“And then we could go employer by employer, identifying what their engagement plans are for New Zealanders and then fill with RSE workers and working holiday staff in a more logical and planned way. Why inhibit economic growth and potential by having an artificial cap?” he asked.

“We seem to lurch from one season to the next in numbers.”

The apple industry provides the most telling metric about the impact of the labour shortage this season.

The sector was forced to revise estimated losses after the Marlborough storms at Christmas, but that estimate doubled as labour supply shortages hit home.

After the storms, estimates were that the year’s crop would be down 7%, or 750,000, cartons.

But in March this was doubled to 1.5 million cartons valued at almost $100 million, with the additional amount attributable to a lack of labour compelling some orchardists to leave fruit hanging.

NZ Apples and Pears business development manager Gary Jones is concerned how the Productivity Commission has viewed RSE workers as low-paid and low-value migrant workers.

The commission has recommended a reduction in large inflows of migrant staff to encourage the horticultural sector to transition into greater mechanisation and employment of locals.

The commission received an NZ Institute of Economic Research report titled Picking Cherries earlier this year, which stated there was no proof a large influx of short-term migration to fill labour gaps contributed to increasing NZ’s productivity.

But Jones says the report’s findings were challenged by pipfruit growers.

“Our permanent workforce is far greater, with one RSE full-time equivalent for two New Zealand full-time equivalents. It makes no sense to analyse the need through a simple head count,” Jones said. 

The report also suggested some displacement of local workers by RSE staff occurs, particularly young beneficiaries.

But Jones disputed this and said often those out of work were not in the areas where work was available and relocating them was in itself problematic.

“Putting young, single and often male workers together, you need to be very careful how you move such staff to a new area – and we have had experience with this,” he said.

“The Government is being superficial in its views on redeploying local labour and the value of RSE workers.”

In the meantime, the horticultural sector is nervously awaiting the Government’s decisions about long-term immigration plans and where seasonal workers will sit within that.

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