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Kiwifruit industry weighs RSE worker impact

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While kiwifruit may be the last large crop harvested this season, the industry is looking nervously at what the impact is likely to be on other large crops and how an impending shortage will be managed.
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Nikki Johnson | November 18, 2020 from GlobalHQ on Vimeo.

The Bay of Plenty (BoP) had been expecting 2500 Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers over the autumn harvest this year, only to receive about half that, with prospects dim for even this number to be on deck for the coming harvest.

New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated (NZKGI) chief executive Nikki Johnson says there is significant work going on behind the scenes to try and boost the number of locals available to work in the sector this season.

“NZKGI is currently offering potential employees the opportunity to get insight into summer season kiwifruit orchard jobs through one and two-day training courses. In BoP alone over 14,500 people will be required over the coming summer months to prepare vines for the 2021 season,” she said.

The busy fruit thinning season over early summer is the second busiest period before harvest kicks off in early March.

A Government-backed initiative to recruit more workers for a winter pruning programme with an injection of $500,000 for training had been met with limited success, with industry sources confirming only two training intakes took place, with less than a dozen staff recruited for the technically complex skill.

Looking ahead to harvest season, NZKGI is doubling down on previous efforts to attract more local staff. This has included focusing on retirees seeking part-time work, and tailoring working hours to suit school start and pick-up times for mothers and fathers.

Along with the rest of the primary sector, NZKGI is also working with the Government on means to enable RSE workers into NZ again.

“Access to RSE workers will be critical for the industry to pick and pack the fruit which contributes much needed income, not only to kiwifruit growing regions, but also supports Pacific Island economies, currently suffering from a lack of tourism,” Johnson said.

Some are less certain RSE workers will be as high up the priority list this year.

Michael Franks, chief executive for Seeka which employs both orchard and packhouse staff, says his company is already putting initiatives in place to draw more Kiwis.

“We are engaging directly with the Ministry for Social Development to maximise that, including pathways and training programmes in all the regions we operate in,” he said.

He says the supply of local staff will need to become particularly dire before it was likely RSE workers would be cleared to come here.

Apata chief executive Stu Weston says the physicality of the seasonal work takes its toll on many local employees.

“We had a high churn rate with local staff we employed at the last harvest, they are very physical jobs, you need to keep up and not everyone is able to,” he said.

NZ Master Contractors Incorporation board member Richard Bibby says communication between the Government and the industry has been scant lately, and time was running out to get workers over the border, even from Pacific Islands.

“If nothing is done by November, we are in deep trouble given the time needed to get visas and medical certificates worked out. If it is not done early, we will be looking at  a major calamity,” he said.

Bibby says there were only just enough RSE workers on the ground now to get through the thinning period for apples and kiwifruit.

“But some growers are now making decisions about harvest, and are concerned they may not even be able to pick all their fruit,” he said.

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