Opinion: Australia and NZ competing for harvest workers

  • Opinion
  • 14/01/2019

By Mike Chapman, CEO of Horticulture NZ

OPINION: Australia and New Zealand are facing the same problem: we are both very short of workers for harvesting fruit and vegetables. This issue will not go away in the immediate or medium-term future and it will require some assistance from Government.

Low unemployment and, in many parts of the country where there are no New Zealanders available for this work, means reliance on offshore labour to harvest.

What is Australia doing? With the Australian equivalent of our RSE scheme - that enables Pacific Island workers to come for harvest and pruning - more than 8000 visas were granted in 2017/18, with the number of Pacific workers in Australia increasing by 40 percent.

The growth is based on need, as there is no cap on the number of Pacific workers that can work in Australia under their scheme. In addition, the workers can work in Australia for up to nine months and have the ability to come and go. In New Zealand, if a worker returns to New Zealand, their re-entry is counted against that year’s cap and the total number of RSE workers permitted in New Zealand has a cap which industry negotiates with the government each year.

A new scheme that started on September 8, 2018, permits Pacific workers to work in Australia for up to three years. This will assist those industries that are short of permanent workers. Under the Australian scheme these workers are not eligible to do seasonal work.

Australia has also recognised the importance backpackers and working holiday makers. Backpackers have been an important worker supplement for harvest, helping to meet peak requirements. Last November, the Australian Government expanded the ability for these workers to get a second year visa work extension and they can now work for up to 12 months with one employer.

For working holiday makers from Canada and Ireland, the age limit has been increased to 35. These enhancements will dramatically increase the number of backpackers that can be available for seasonal harvest and related work in Australia.

These changes combine to increase the Australian workforce available at harvest time, and mean they will pick the best possible fruit and vegetables. In New Zealand, there are reviews underway that will consider similar changes, but the results of these reviews will not be known until later in the year. The immediate shortage of labour for the New Zealand fruit harvest this season will not be addressed with Immigration law and policy changes in 2019.

We are making submissions for changes to be made here similar to those in Australia, with start dates as early as possible.

But this season, Australia will likely be a more favoured country to work in and this will take possible workers away from the New Zealand harvest. Ultimately this may result in New Zealand produce being less competitive in our international markets, as fruit and vegetables harvested at less than optimal times do not have the same quality, freshness and flavour compared with fruit and vegetables harvested at the right time.

Finally, some myth busting. The comment is often made that if you paid more, then there would not be a worker shortage. Where harvest piece rates are paid, the more productive you are, the more you get paid. Those that are most productive get paid very well.

If you are not productive, your pay reflects that. Regardless, if there are no unemployed workers available it does not matter what they are paid. More attractive pay rates will only attract workers away from other industries, and transfer the problem to another sector. Aside from that, productive harvest workers are paid well and above the living wage.

Even taking exchange rates into account, the Australian Horticulture Award base and penal rates means productive harvest workers in New Zealand can earn more than they would in Australia.

The amount they earn is literally in their hands.

Mike Chapman is CEO of Horticulture NZ.