Orchard work shortage bites

Pipfruit grower Con van der Voort. PHOTO: JARED MORGAN
Pipfruit grower Con van der Voort. PHOTO: JARED MORGAN
Some workers sent to Central Otago’s orchards and vineyards are not up to standard and the lack of seasonal workers from the Pacific is beginning to bite, an industry leader says.

Continuing labour shortages across both sectors have affected planning for key phases in production cycles such as picking and pruning.

This has led to calls for the Government to open quarantine-free travel bubbles to allow seasonal workers from Covid-free countries to plug labour gaps before it is too late, if not for this season then the next.

Pipfruit industry pioneer Con van der Voort, who operates a major packing facility in Ettrick, said the "come and go" nature of this season’s workforce was affecting orchardists not just in Central Otago but nationally.

"The people we’re forced to take by the Government are very slow and many don’t make the minimum wage [in terms of productivity]. We need to top them up by $6-$7 per hour."

Many did not want to work despite being on the Government’s $5K to Work programme - a $5000 grant when a jobseeker needed to relocate for a job that was longer than 91 days, he said.

"We took on some early on and they had to work 91 days — they got past 91 days and were gone.

"At the moment we’re forced to take anyone who comes in the gate."

Other orchardists said some on the grant never arrived, or left before the 91 days were up.

Ministry of Social Development (MSD) southern region regional commissioner Jason Tibble said MSD met orchardists regularly to discuss issues over the hiring season, support it could provide to develop the workforce, and offered a range of incentives.

"However, we recognise that not all jobseekers are suitable for this type of work."

"We are aware of a number of employers who have increased wages to retain workers.

"For example, the kiwifruit industry now pays the living wage.

"Pay and conditions are important incentives to attract and retain workers."

Mr van der Voort said the Government was "pushing people" on to employers to combat domestic unemployment, yet New Zealand’s doors remained closed to people who genuinely needed work.

"There is no disease in Vanuatu and they have 80% unemployment there."

Vanuatu and other Pacific nations economies were heavily reliant on the recognised seasonal employer (RSE) scheme which came into effect in 2007 and it had since become integral to those nations’ GDP, Mr van der Voort said.

The Government was not supporting the industry at a time when costs were spiralling, he said.

Mt Dunstan Estates vineyard manager Christine Rasmussen said she was lucky to have a mechanical harvester for the 62ha of vines she managed near Alexandra.

She was able to contract the harvester out to a Cromwell vineyard faced with labour shortages.

That vineyard usually had 18 RSE workers a season — this year it had two.

A contingent of seven backpackers had been lured away from the same vineyard by the promise of $28 per hour for picking grapes in Marlborough, Mrs Rasmussen said.

Throughout Central Otago’s wine industry she had heard of high school pupils being given dispensation from principals to take time off to help with picking.

"There’s a lot of that going on and a lot of calling in favours."

National horticulture spokesman David Bennett said the Government had to expand its safe zone travel arrangements to include quarantine-free travel into New Zealand from the Pacific and it needed to happen fast to plug a workforce gap of up to 13,500 workers.

jared.morgan@odt.co.nz

Comments

It's been months since the orchards knew they were likely to be short but I haven't seen many, if any, running training programs teaching people to pick before they were needed . Haven't seen meaniful wage increases to encourage people to do this physically demanding short term work while paying 2 lots of rent . Haven't seen any meaniful local recruitment , if fact quite the opposite with some employers even stating they hadn't had the 'time' to check out and respond to local applicants.
We are often told that the high prices that we pay for local product is a result of supply and demand market forces. Why then do those same forces not seem to apply to wages etc when supply is short?
We are told that hundreds of millions of dollars of fruit are at risk, but if that's the case surely you are better getting that fruit picked while getting a smaller profit than it not being picked at all. But the industry seems to prefer taking the loose of produce and blaming the govt rather than actually responding to the reality of the situation .
Mind you I guess it's easier to make an insurance claim for losses and blame the govt.

 

 

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