Monday, April 22, 2024

Hort sector welcomes RSE decision

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The horticultural sector is pinning its hopes on seeing a return to the many thousands of Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers this season, with the Government announcing they can arrive without having to go through managed isolation. After a harvest that resulted in the apple sector writing off tens of millions of dollars’ worth of crop due to labour shortages, there has been a collective sigh of relief that the risk of similar losses next harvest will be eased.
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The horticultural sector is pinning its hopes on seeing a return to the many thousands of Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers this season, with the Government announcing they can arrive without having to go through managed isolation.

After a harvest that resulted in the apple sector writing off tens of millions of dollars’ worth of crop due to labour shortages, there has been a collective sigh of relief that the risk of similar losses next harvest will be eased.

Pipfruit NZ chief executive Alan Pollard says the timing of the announcement in early August was timely, providing employers time to line-up staff for the pipfruits’ first peak, October-November thinning.

“We will be able to start bringing in workers in September, and we are hopeful we can get back closer to the RSE cap, of about 12,500 workers,” Pollard said. 

He estimated the pipfruit sector alone had a shortfall of 7000-8000 workers and was also sorely missing the thousands of backpackers who also played a big part in harvest workforces.

The announcement excludes covid-struck Fiji, and also Solomon Islands, but includes key staff sources of Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu.

Until now, workers have had to undergo quarantine for two weeks, paid for by employers, who were also paying them on full pay while in quarantine.

“We had always argued that moving them from a covid-free island to NZ and putting them in quarantine here just made no sense,” he said.

Richard Bibby, of the NZ Master Contractors who often employ RSE staff on orchards and vineyards, says until now the cost of bringing in RSE workers was about $5000 a staff member, by the time MIQ and wages during MIQ were covered.

“And their visas are only for seven months, and two weeks in MIQ is counted as part of that employment period, so you only have them for 6.5 months. The announcement is welcome, but the Government has not exactly made it that easy for the industry,” Bibby said.

He says to add to cost and complication, those RSE workers still in NZ were now required to complete a completely new set of visa paperwork, at considerable time and cost to employers.

Bibby regularly employs 700 RSE workers and says it was likely there would be bottlenecks in the system that could still stall their arrival here in NZ.

The Government announcement specified workers arriving here would have to have a pre-departure covid test, and another one when they landed here. 

However, on returning home they would be required to undergo MIQ, and the islands all had limited capacity for isolating incoming workers.

“We have also lost a number of these workers to Australia where the measures have been easier, they have not been required to undergo MIQ there,” he said.

However, he was looking forward to the first arrivals, including 40 he had coming in September, originally booked under the earlier requirement they undergo MIQ.

“Hopefully that will not be the case now,” he said.

HortNZ chief executive Nadine Tunley says while New Zealanders would remain the sector’s first priority for employment, additional help was still required or the ability of the sector to continue to grow would be at risk.

Pollard says he knew of growers who had opted to walk away from their orchards after last season’s harvest that left tonnes of fruit unpicked and mental health had been a major concern for the sector.

Summerfruit NZ chief executive Kate Hellstrom says there were still details to be gone through for bringing the staff in.

“But having some certainty about not needing MIQ is a relief. As sectors, viticulture and horticulture have been working very collaboratively. There is a lot of overlap between sectors for staff demand, there is certainly work there for all RSE workers,” Hellstrom said.

She noted the absence of backpackers was a big issue for southern summerfruit growers, something unlikely to change until greater vaccination coverage was achieved and travel restrictions were eased.

Estimates are that about 5000 backpackers remain in NZ, and are still capable of working thanks to the Government extending visas and enabling workers to work across different sectors.

NZ Kiwifruit Growers chief executive Colin Bond also welcomed the announcement.

“While New Zealanders remain the first priority in employment in the kiwifruit industry, the availability of New Zealanders as well as other people stranded in NZ are well short of seasonal worker requirements, meaning there is a deficit,” Bond said.

The kiwifruit sector estimates it has managed to recruit about 3500 new local workers in the past three seasons as a result of a concerted locally-focused recruitment campaign.

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