Friday, December 1, 2023

Tight labour supply eases for kiwifruit season

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More backpackers and smaller crops lift labour pressures.
Profitability rather than labour supply will be the biggest issue facing growers this year, Ōpōtiki contract harvester and grower Brett Wotton says.
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Lowered crop volumes and a lift in overseas backpacker numbers have helped ease the perennial problem of seasonal workers for the kiwifruit sector this year.

The easing off comes after three seasons of tight labour supply exacerbated by covid restrictions. Covid meant the brakes went on the usual 50,000 backpackers who visit New Zealand every year, and on Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) staff access. 

The staff shortage last year played into seasonal quality issues and the sector has been forced to double down this year to retain its premium quality status in overseas markets.

Mike Murphy of New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated said the lower volume forecast for this year indicates less labour would be required than in 2022, when 24,000 people were employed at peak harvest. 

“The re-opening of New Zealand’s borders, lack of covid-19, and downward economy indicates a temporary respite from the severe labour shortages of previous years, and we are not hearing of any critical labour shortages from industry stakeholders at this time,” he said.

Estimates vary on this year’s final crop volume, but all agree it will be significantly down on last year’s 160 million trays, in itself well below initial estimates for 190 million trays. Some estimates put this year as low as 140 million trays of fruit.

A toxic mix of poor winter chilling, a cold spring, an unprecedented late frost in October and two cyclones have wiped millions of trays of production from orchards along the length of the east coast from Northland to Hawke’s Bay.

But Murphy cautioned the industry has to be mindful that this year’s harvest will provide only temporary respite from crop volumes, and the pressure to source sufficient people in 2024 is forecast to return along with rising volumes.

Some have estimated next year’s harvest could exceed 230 million trays, but James Trevelyan of post-harvest processors Trevelyan’s said he is cautious about picking a volume as high as that at this stage.

He put the volume at nearer 200 million trays, and dependent upon winter chilling – something that is becoming harder to achieve in Bay of Plenty.

“If it did get to 230 million, there would certainly be challenges,” he said.

As this season kicked off his company was still hiring, though the start to the season has been slower than expected.

“There are more backpackers about than we have had in the past couple of years.”

Immigration Minister Michael Wood announced earlier this month that working holidaymakers in NZ with visas due to expire before late September could have their visas extended by six months. 

They were also given open work rights, enabling them to work for the same employer for longer than three months, where maximum work durations currently apply. More than 52,000 working holiday visas have been approved, with nearly 36,500 backpackers entering NZ since the borders re-opened.

The cap on RSE worker numbers was also lifted last spring. The lift from 16,000 to 19,000 was the largest in a decade.

Trevelyan said despite the slower start, the sector will still face a critical harvest peak but the shoulders of that peak will be lower.

In Ōpōtiki, eastern Bay of Plenty grower and harvest contractor Brett Wotton was welcoming the arrival of more backpackers, having struggled to source enough suitable local people to work in harvest gangs over the past two seasons.

He said the challenge for growers this year will be not so much in sourcing labour, but in trying to keep costs in check, including labour costs.

“I have staff on rates between $30-$40 an hour, and this year I estimate 70% of Green growers will not be making any money, largely due to climatic impacts. 

“I have growers who would normally do 19,000 trays a hectare down to as low as 8000 trays/ha. A lack of winter chilling, cold spring, a frost and two cyclones has hit hard. 

“Our only hope is that Zespri can raise the price and improve the quality.”

After a bad run in quality last season, Zespri embarked on an industry-agreed plan to lift harvested fruit quality this season. 

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