Unions question why local fruit-pickers haven't been offered living wage, like foreigners

While it's a good thing foreign workers being allowed in to pick fruit will be paid a decent wage, unions are questioning why the same generosity hasn't been offered to locals.

On Friday, the Government announced 2000 additional recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers would be allowed into the country early next year, despite ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.

Only about 4000 are presently in the country - far short of the usual 14,000, with growers threatening to leave crops to rot if a solution couldn't be found. 

Under the new plan, employers will have to meet the costs of managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) for the workers, pay them at least $22.10 an hour, and pay them 30 hours' worth of wages while they are in MIQ.

"This decision sets an important precedent for employers who complain of labour shortages," said Richard Wagstaff, president of the Council of Trade Unions.

"We would like to see all employers in horticulture, not just those in the RSE scheme, step up and pay the living wage to everyone they employ."

The minimum wage is currently $18.90. The present living wage - the minimum needed to live a dignified life as set by the living wage campaign - is $22.10 per hour. 

Anita Rosentreter of FIRST Union said overseas workers deserve the living wage rate, but if employers had offered it to locals they might have more luck solving the worker shortage.

"I think it's really demotivating when you have your employer telling you, 'I'm willing to pay this person over here $22.10 an hour, but you're not worth the same - you're only worth minimum wage," she told Newshub.

FIRST Union surveyed members recently, asking them if they were willing to upend their lives and go pick fruit for minimum wage - 96 percent said no. But for the living wage, about a third were keen.

"When we asked those same people if it would make a difference if the living wage was on offer, there was a marked improvement... If they're willing to say that overseas workers deserve a living wage, then they should be willing to say that New Zealand workers in that same industry deserve the same."

Rosentreter said foreign workers would also send much of what they earn offshore, while Kiwis would spend it here. 

"We're all in this together, in terms of trying to recover from COVID-19 as a community. Part of that is ensuring that local people have decent jobs and liveable incomes."

Despite the extra workers, the industry says some fruit will still be left unpicked.

 "It's not a question of price, we're paying more money in this scheme, we're going to be paying the managed isolation facilities $4700 per worker, plus 30 hours," Bostock New Zealand's John Bostock told RNZ.

"So we're prepared to do that, but it's a question of finding the number of available and willing Kiwis to do it. It's looking like about $6000 extra per worker compared to hiring a Kiwi. So the incentive is to hire a Kiwi, but they're just simply not available."

Rosentreter said many employers see Kiwis as lazy and unwilling to do the work, which she rejected.

"It's not true, and it's certainly not what I've seen... I've seen people who are really committed to the work, work extremely hard and often do really long hours - 60 or 70 hours a week. That's a really unfair assessment that keeps being repeated over and over again."