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Offering the same level of pastoral care to Kiwi workers as is offered to labour from the Pacific may be the only answer to horticulture labour shortages next season.
That is the view of Summerfruit NZ chairman and chief executive of Cromwell-based orchard 45 South Tim Jones.
He said with the last of the 2020-21 season’s summer fruit moving through the supply chain now, it could seem premature to be thinking about staff for next season.
However, continued uncertainty around border closures meant starting now was prudent and possibly the only sensible option if the sector was to attract enough people.
That particularly applied in the cased of recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers and backpackers.
"Should we plan for [the] RSE [scheme] to be back up and running as per pre-Covid-19? In my opinion, no.
"Will there be as many backpackers in New Zealand next season as this year? Again, in my opinion, no."
Instead the horticulture sector would be reliant on New Zealanders to fill the roles, Mr Jones said.
"School students, university students, the unemployed, parents working school hours — any other cohort you can think of will be exactly who we have to attract, employ, retain and reward for helping us pick and pack the 2021-22 summer-fruit crop."
That meant the industry holding a microscope up to itself to examine how it treated its workforce.
"How we treat seasonal staff has been the topic of many media articles, social media posts and even in comment from Government ministers."
Those involved in the RSE scheme knew fully the level of pastoral care that was needed, Mr Jones said.
"I think the time has come to recognise that all our seasonal workers would benefit from increased levels of pastoral care."
He questioned if campsites were suitable and ablutions up to standard and well maintained.
He also questioned whether cooking and refrigeration facilities were such that staff could feed themselves well.
There were also questions over what happened to campers when it rained and what was provided to keep people warm and dry and ready to get back to work when the weather improved, he said.
He also wanted to know if growers provided Wi-Fi and what kind of transport they provided to and from work, to the supermarket, or laundrette.
He was in the process of reviewing those issues at his own business and encouraged other growers to do the same.
The Minister of Immigration Kris Faafoi said current Covid-19 restrictions were likely to mean any further numbers of recognised seasonal employer workers into the country would be very limited.
On Wednesday, Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan urged the Government to use the surprise increase in the number of spaces in managed isolation to bring in RSE workers to help meet the desperate need for labour in the area’s horticulture sector.
Mr Faafoi said he had had regular meetings with horticulture and wine sector representatives, who had reiterated the challenges they had faced with the restricted numbers of RSE workers who had been available for harvests and winter pruning.
However, while officials would continue to look at what options might be available to see if further workers could be brought in, current Covid-19 constraints, including difficulties getting workers home again, "mean any further RSE numbers are likely to be very limited", he said.
- Additional reporting RNZ