Agriculture Minister pressed to allow skilled farm workers into country before sector suffers

The farming sector is lacking around 1000 skilled workers due to COVID-19.
The farming sector is lacking around 1000 skilled workers due to COVID-19. Photo credit: Getty

A group representing rural contractors says the country's lack of skilled farm workers needs to be resolved urgently.

Rural Contractors New Zealand met with Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor and Government officials on Thursday to try and find a solution to the problem.

The farming sector is lacking around 1000 skilled workers due to COVID-19 and the country's closed borders - and with no sign the country will be opening up soon, there are grave fears the sector will take a hit.

Included in the positions needing to be filled are around 150 skilled machine operating roles. 

Roger Parton, Rural Contractors NZ's chief executive, says it's essential the sector has skiller workers to drive the necessary machinery and there just aren't enough locals with sufficient skills and experience.

He says while the Government didn't altogether rule out giving exemptions to such workers on Thursday, it doesn't appear there is any quick solution in sight.

"It's not a blanket 'no', it's a blanket 'we understand the problem but...'," Parton told RNZ.

"And what we need to do is provide further information and then seek a border exemption for these people so we can get them in and get the harvest done and contribute to the economy."

But he said there is little time to waste.

"It is urgent, for the simple reason that the time needed to get people into the country and into two weeks quarantine and then be ready for the season - the gap is closing at a very rapid rate."

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor says he recognises there is a skills gap and it may be necessary to look at how to safely bring some skilled workers into the country.

But his first priority, he says, is to help find work in the sector for New Zealanders who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19.

"I couldn't give them any assurance other than that the Government is very aware of their dilemma," O'Connor told RNZ.

"We're going to put money into training young New Zealanders as quickly as possible and I encourage the contractors to look at some who may not have the skills right at the top but they may be able to help lift their skills into those jobs."