Thursday, December 7, 2023

Migrant labour challenges looms

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The horticultural sector is targeting all areas of the labour force to draw in greater numbers of workers as harvest season looms. Pipfruit New Zealand chief executive Alan Pollard says the sector faces a massive hole in its usual Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) programme, with about 4000 staff still in the country out of the 12,000 originally supposed to be here.
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For the coming season, the sector had anticipated employing 16,000 RSE workers, but this remained highly doubtful.

“And of those 4000 still here, there will still be a few more who will be repatriated yet,” he said.

There are also about 11,000 holiday makers capable of working on a visa also still in NZ, well back on the usual 50,000 that provide a valuable seasonal pool of staffing.

Pollard says the industry’s first obligation was to employ NZ workers, but attracting them was still challenging as the wages subsidy was only just starting to wind down.

“We are told unemployment will peak at 7.8% but not until April,” he said. 

But our first major harvest is Otago cherries in December, and then apples in February.”

The Government recently announced entry allowances for skilled agricultural workers and vets, with a seasonal work visa also now available to allow the 11,000 working holiday visa holders to remain in NZ if they wish to work.  

The stranded RSE workers have also been provided a more flexible visa to enable them to continue to work, filling in time with non-RSE work prior to harvest and re-entering the RSE workforce for the new harvest.

Average pay rates are about $20-$21 an hour for fruit picking, and Pollard says increasing the pay was not always the solution to sourcing more staff.

“We are also looking at how we can incentivise people to move to other regions for harvesting. The unemployed are not always a mobile workforce. We are also trying hard with the student population, to incentivise them to move around in groups between harvesting jobs.”

The industry is also hoping to get government approval to source RSE workers again, and Pollard says Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi is open to entertaining a proposal on this, but making no pre-election promises on it.

“But the Prime Minister has made it clear the primary sector will be what drives NZ out of a covid recession, so the Government cannot put barriers up to prevent that happening,” he said.

He says the mutual benefit of RSE to Pacific Island nations like Samoa could not be ignored either.

“Places like Samoa, have been hit hard by loss of tourism and loss of RSE jobs here.”

Meantime, meat processors face the prospect of reduced capacity if skilled halal processing staff are forced to leave due to visa stand down requirements. About a third of the 250 halal workers fall into this category.

A further 260 other meat workers may also be required to go, based on Meat Industry Association (MIA) estimates.

Like the horticultural sector, the meat industry is working behind the scenes with government officials on a sector agreement and removing the annual departure requirements that go with the essential workers’ visa conditions.

“The current immigration policy settings would have significant adverse consequences for our industry and mean we would not be able to operate at optimum capacity or deliver the full economic and social benefits to the country during the recovery,” said MIA chief executive Sirma Karapeeva.

Rural Contractors NZ chief executive Roger Parton says access to skilled staff is looking brighter than it did a couple of months ago with the Government recently approving access for 210 international machine operators.

Parton says his members are still recruiting new operators or those who have previous experience and are seeking to extend the immigration visas of operators already in NZ.

“All of those things are reducing the pressure, but we are not out of the woods just yet,” he said.

One issue is that six month immigration visas, minus the two weeks in quarantine, is too short for some roles which could be needed for seven to eight months, but he doubts the Government will make changes.

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