Friday, July 1, 2022

Time running out for foreign workers’ arrival

The window for foreign machinery operators to arrive in New Zealand before summer crop harvest is rapidly closing as the hot humid weather creates ideal growing conditions across many North Island farms.

Outstanding growing conditions across the Waikato and North Island has meant it is highly likely that maize harvest will be early this year, which will put added pressure on contractors desperately short of staff.

The window for foreign machinery operators to arrive in New Zealand before summer crop harvest is rapidly closing as the hot humid weather creates ideal growing conditions across many North Island farms.

Rural Contractors chief executive Andrew Olsen said he is hopeful these workers will arrive prior to the maize harvest getting under way.

Unofficially, he said he has been told that visas for these workers could be signed off by mid-January.

“MIQ spaces will be the next challenge,” Olsen said.

If those spaces are available, then it was feasible those workers could be through MIQ by the end of the month.

“That’s what we’re aiming for,” he said.

“We have solid senior MPI support pushing with us on this.”

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi and Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor announced on December 12 that 200 skilled machinery operators were to get border class exceptions as they “are vital for the arable and horticulture sectors to get harvests in”.

These exemptions would also be granted 40 shearers and 50 wool handlers.

Olsen said the need for the operators is now even more urgent with short-staffed rural contractors working long hours to try and keep up with early summer growth.

“MPI has moved quickly since the December 12 announcement to support the entry of these 200 workers, but Immigration NZ is yet to operationalise the ministers’ announcement,” he said.

A “nightmare” scenario would be rural contractors are still wading their way through complex visa and MIQ applications in February.

“If that happens, we risk some really ugly consequences,” he said.

The Government’s decision to close the border following the detection of Omicron had dampened the enthusiasm of some contractors for these workers, with the full quota of 200 workers not being filled.

“If we can get guaranteed MIQ space ASAP through the border exception visa, then I think more interest will come,” he said.

The controversy over UK musician DJ Dimension testing positive for Omicron had killed off any chance of these workers being able to isolate on farms, he said.

Federated Farmers employment spokesperson Chris Lewis said MIQ spaces had to be made available whenever the Government announced more workers were being allowed into NZ.

Outstanding growing conditions across Waikato had brought forward the maize harvest by two to three weeks to mid-February.

On his own farm at Pukeatua in Waikato, he was expecting the crop to yield another half to a trailer load per hectare of silage – meaning eight to 10 hours more work for contractors.

“There’s going to be more tonnage on every job and it’s going to take them longer,” Lewis said.

While desperation will probably see some contractors take the risk, he feared it was now too late to get those workers in before harvest began.

This is because contractors had to weigh up the costs of bringing in these workers versus the amount of time they would have out in the field before harvest was over.

“It’s still going to be an eight-week harvest and it’s bloody expensive to bring someone in. It’s too little, too late now sadly for them,” he said.

He said they will keep pushing for MIQ space to be made available for these workers so they can work for the remainder of this season.

The uncertainty around the Omicron variant of covid-19 meant the industry had to hope for the best but plan accordingly in case the borders continued to be shut, he said.

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