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23.2 C
Bay of Plenty Region
Wednesday, March 3, 2021
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Covid’s impact on seasonal workers

The latest Covid outbreak has only heightened uncertainty around labour supply for the kiwifruit sector, with both Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) and backpacker staff left in limbo.

The past season had a 14,400 cap on RSE workers coming into New Zealand from the Pacific Islands, of which about 2200 were destined for Bay of Plenty kiwifruit sector.

However, the region ended up with 1200 less than expected, and some of the workers that did make it, remain stuck until repatriation flights can return them home.

Nikki Johnson, New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated CEO said that at this stage it was not possible to discuss RSE or working holiday staff numbers for next season, with negotiations continuing with government.

Meanwhile, there were mixed feelings among RSE workers still here about returning home.

“There will be a number who will want to stay, and some who want to go,” said Johnson.

“But there are no imminent flights on the horizon for Vanuatu, although there may be a NZ Defence Force repatriation flight planned.”

The government has extended RSE working visas until late October and waived the five-month stand down between leaving and returning to New Zealand for the new season.

About half the country’s RSE workers are deployed in the apple and pear sector, while kiwifruit and viticulture account for the remainder in almost equal numbers.

Work for those remaining

Meanwhile, the challenge for the several hundred RSE workers still estimated to be in the Bay of Plenty was to provide work for them, something Johnson said was not too great an issue.

On average, RSE workers who return to New Zealand after earlier experience can expect to earn a premium over first timers, with returnees averaging $20.61 an hour, compared to $18.87 for first timers.

Mike Chapman

[Horticulture NZ is] in active discussions with government about getting greater flexibility on visa renewals, for both RSE and holiday visa workers.” – Mike Chapman

The highest paying skills are winter pruning, where an experienced pruner on an hourly rate can expect to average $22.24, comparable to a permanent local, who earns $22.30 an hour for the same job.

However, relocating some of the remaining 7000 from the rest of New Zealand to undertake work here in the Bay was challenging when they were not sure if they would be leaving New Zealand or not.

“The next main peak for work is summer, and we will be working to draw in more New Zealanders. At present the unemployment rates do not give us much to work with, and we do not know what will happen when the wage subsidy comes off.”

The winter pruning season is nearing its conclusion and initial fears a shortage of RSE workers would impede progress has faded as the industry had rallied together as spring nears. A $250,000 government grant to train more pruners yielded 25 locals for the first training intake.

Johnson said the kiwifruit sector has done a good job of boosting the number of local workers in the segment, with about 50 percent of seasonal jobs going to them – about 8000 people.

She said a concerted effort in the past two years to focus more upon locals to meet seasonal demand has met with good success, and would continue with renewed focus for the next harvest season.

Nikki Johnson. Photo/Supplied

“The next main peak for work is summer, and we will be working to draw in more New Zealanders. At present the unemployment rates do not give us much to work with, and we do not know what will happen when the wage subsidy comes off.”

Working holidayers’ contribution

Holiday working visa holders usually provide 2000 staff for the kiwifruit season, and are invaluable for their preparedness to move around, something that may not be as practical for New Zealand workers living outside the Bay of Plenty.

It is estimated there are 21,000 working holiday visa holders in New Zealand.

Mike Chapman, chief executive for Horticulture NZ said the organisation was in active discussions with government about getting greater flexibility on visa renewals, for both RSE and holiday visa workers.

Over 13,000 people have signed a petition calling for an extension to the six-month working visa, which government initially extended for such workers to September 25.

However, for many getting home by then is looking less likely, and for others the prospect of staying in New Zealand and continuing to work is more appealing.

Chapman acknowledged there had been little contact to date with new immigration minister Kris Faafoi.

He said the industry had been pushing to have the RSE worker cap for the new season lifted to 16,000 from its present 14,400 to help meet growing demand from apples and kiwifruit for more labour.

Richard Bibby, chairman of the Masters Contractors Association that manages seasonal staff, said the silver lining out of Covid has been the RSE workers who are still here, given how uncertain it was about getting any more back for the new season.

Uncertainty over visa extensions remains the single biggest concern, and one he hoped the new minister for immigration would sort soon.

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