Opinion: No workers, no fruit and veges

  • Opinion
  • 15/11/2018

By Mike Chapman.

OPINION: There have been three recent announcements of interest to horticulture:

1. The Prime Minister and the Chair of the Business Advisory Council announcing the four priority areas for the Council

2. Unemployment at a low 3.9 percent.

3. The cap for the Pacific Island Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme being lifted by 1,750; a much need increase in our seasonal workforce

Cumulatively, these announcements add up to the very sobering fact that we haven't got enough workers in New Zealand to sustain growth across all sectors including tourism, aged-care and feeding ourselves. Not to exaggerate, we are facing a labour crisis of economy-crippling proportions.

Often the automatic answer is that robots and artificial intelligence (AI) will be our savour. But that will not happen this, or next year. 

When robotics and AI eventually make a difference, it is likely there will be a whole new series of social and other problems and again a lack of skilled labour to make and keep them working.

New Zealand's urban and rural businesses are largely small to medium-sized enterprises. In many cases, the owners are hands-on and provide much of the innovation lifting the performance of their businesses. This is true for most of our farms, orchards and commercial vegetable gardens. It is one of the strengths of our rural sector.

People who care about their land and sustain New Zealand's economic well-being are the owners of the businesses and inter-generational stewards of the land. But these rural businesses, including the rural and urban infrastructure that supports them, need skilled and reliable workers to continue to operate, let alone grow, and they need these workers today.

Across the ditch in Australia, their response to labour shortages is to make it much easier for seasonal and semi-permanent foreign workers to come and work on their farms, in their orchards and commercial vegetable gardens. There is no cap on the Australian equivalent of our RSE scheme. 

That means, Australian employers have no limit on the number of Pacific Islander workers they can employ, and they can work for nine months. It is not surprising that the numbers of Pacific Islander workers in Australian horticulture in the past two years has increased by 40 percent.

Horticulture New Zealand CEO, Mike Chapman (on left)
Horticulture New Zealand CEO, Mike Chapman (on left) Photo credit: Supplied

For entry-level and medium skilled jobs for all small to medium sized businesses foreign workers can come in for three years. The Australian Government has moved to put in place an immediate fix  allowing more workers in. This is taking these workers away from New Zealand, making our situation worse.

So it is disappointing to note that the Business Advisory Council is not focusing on the immediate crisis facing New Zealand  a complete lack of labour with Australia taking away workers from New Zealand. Sure the Council will focus on building tomorrow's skills, accelerating our regions' growth, attracting high quality investment, and unleashing our small to medium sized enterprises.

But none of that will be able to happen if we do not have an immediate labour supply fix for the next few years, because there will be no small to medium sized enterprises to unleash and nothing to invest in. While these four targets are necessary for our medium term prosperity; we need to get there first.

It will also be a point of note to see if this Business Advisory Council appreciates that it is the rural sector's businesses that drive New Zealand's economy and that it needs to work with the rural sector to develop the programmes for the future. But perhaps the significance of the rural sector has not been recognised, as there are few members on this Council from the rural sector. This seems strange as New Zealand's wealth is driven by the rural sector and the rural sector is responsible for the growth in New Zealand's export income. 

Annual exports were valued at $53.7 billion for the year ended December 2017, up $5.2 billion (11 percent) from 2016. Dairy products led the rise, up $2.8 billion to $14.0 billion. Meat rose $706 million to $6.6 billion. Logs, wood, and wood articles rose $546 million to $4.7 billion. Our top exports, making up 54.4 percent of export earnings are dairy, eggs, honey, meat, wood, fruit and nuts.

Mike Chapman is CEO of Horticulture NZ