The nation just has to cope, Parker insists

Industries reliant on migrant skilled workers say training New Zealanders to do the work instead is good, but it will not help them this season.

Industry spokesmen responded yesterday to comments from Minister for Trade and Export Growth David Parker at a breakfast meeting in Invercargill on Tuesday.

Neil McAra. Photo: ODT files
Neil McAra. Photo: ODT files

But Mr Parker yesterday reiterated his statements, making it clear people needed to work around it this year, and threw cold water on any thoughts of industry-managed quarantining.

At the breakfast, Southland Chamber of Commerce president Neil McAra said a skilled-worker shortage after lockdown was a key issue and there was concern not enough was being done to bring people into the country to help under-resourced sectors.

In response, Mr Parker said allowing international seasonal workers in to fill those gaps would "probably not" happen this year.

His reasons included prioritising the right of New Zealanders to return to the country over others, which was already constrained by spaces available in managed isolation.

Mr McAra said yesterday training the New Zealand workforce was a good aspirational target, but the short-term nature of the next six months’ shortages made it "unachievable" in a range of jobs, from tractor drivers, shearers and woolhandlers to fruit picking.

He said an ideal solution would be to allow businesses to pay for skilled workers’ quarantine costs, as well as a clear programme of workforce development over the next year.

New Zealand Shearing Contractors Association vice-president Carolyn Clegg said there would be a shortage of qualified people over the peak season in November.

"That has ramifications for our farmers and animal welfare issues."

It took two or three years to train as a shearer.

"It’s not something you can learn in the space of two months."

She said while it was hard to get an exact number, about 300 shearers and woolhandlers typically came to New Zealand during the peak season and their absence would be felt by their teams.

Summerfruit New Zealand interim chief executive Richard Palmer said policy decisions needed to be made now, with crop thinning beginning next month.

He said it was looking at options such as industry-managed quarantine and horticulture visas but said it needed decisions now so growers did not compromise their economic opportunities.

Last year, the horticulture and fruit-growing industry totalled 28.2% of Central Otago export GDP and about 5500 workers were needed there during the peak season.

Mr Parker said yesterday there were consequences of the pandemic that had no perfect outcome.

"And one of them is the effect on labour coming from overseas. My first message is, there is no perfect solution to this until we get a vaccine, and although there’s no guarantees about this, I think it’s likely that a vaccine will be in quite widespread distribution by the middle of next year. Until then we’ve just got to manage through.

"We did get all the produce in last season and there were predictions that we wouldn’t be able to shear all of our sheep because of a shortage of labour. We managed to overcome both of those challenges," he said.

"People at one level - employers - are going to have to compete for labour, they’re going to have to reach into populations that haven’t been their traditional sources of labour.

"We are aware that there is a demand for more RSE [recognised seasonal employer] workers, but there is also understandable anxiety amongst unemployed New Zealanders that we don’t allow their employment prospects to be undermined by competition from extra people coming from overseas at a time of high unemployment.

"So that’s the dilemma we’re trying to manage."

To the suggestion an industry-managed quarantine might be an option for the coming fruit-picking season, he said contracting out border protection services had not worked for other countries.

"We know that it’s really complicated to manage border protections. We’re probably one of the best in the world at that. And even here it hasn’t been without problems," he said.

"You cause more harm than good, if the consequences are that you have a resurgence in Covid."

He acknowledged the situation was challenging for primary producers.

"I’m sure as a country, as we overcame the challenges in shearing and all of these other things, that we will overcome these challenges. But it won’t all be easy."

 - additonal reporting Ashley Smyth

Comments

This is an industry generated problem. We get the same sob story every year. I'm sick of it.
Set up an industry funded training scheme for NZers, pay them full wages as they're being trained. provide transport assistance or livable accommodation on site. Pay a livable wage. Current rates, although they are made to sound attractive, are rarely achievable by most workers because they are based on piece rates not hourly rates.
Start treating your workers with some respect and you might see a change in attitude.

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