'Slim' chance much-needed migrant workers will be allowed into NZ as COVID-19 worsens globally - Agriculture Minister

The Government is hoping to attract 10,000 Kiwis into the primary industries.
The Government is hoping to attract 10,000 Kiwis into the primary industries. Photo credit: Getty

With COVID-19 appearing to worsen around the world, the Agriculture Minister says it's not looking likely that skilled migrant workers will be allowed into New Zealand any time soon.

With our closed borders shutting out many foreign workers vital to the rural economy, the sector has been calling on the Government to allow skilled workers in to fill positions Kiwis are unable to.

But Damien O'Connor says the chances of that happening are low.

"COVID is actually getting worse in most other parts of the world, aside from New Zealand, and so the chances of us opening the door are slim," O'Connor told Magic Talk's Rural Today on Tuesday.

The dairy industry faces a hole of around 1000 workers, while there is also a shortage of around 150 skilled machine operators.

Globally, there have been more than 16 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, with the death toll standing at over 650,000. And many countries where the virus was thought to be under control are now facing a second wave.

"For a lot of Kiwis who are wanting to come back to New Zealand they have a legal right to do so and we're trying to manage their isolation and quarantine first and foremost," O'Connor said.

"We have capacity issues and so the chances of having the capacity to bring other people into New Zealand in the short term is slim."

O'Connor said the best way to fill the labour shortage was to attract New Zealanders who had lost their jobs in other industries.

"We've got to try hard to get Kiwis who might not be doing something else to come out and help us," he said.

But while many agree this is a good long-term solution, there have been complaints it's not a realistic way of fixing the short-term problems faced by many in the sector.

Govt confident goal of filling 10,000 rural jobs will be 'easily achieved'

On Monday the Government launched the Opportunity Grows Here campaign, with the mission of attracting Kiwis to thousands of jobs ripe for the picking in the rural sector.

It's part of a massive drive to get New Zealanders who have lost work in industries hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic into work in the primary sector.

O'Connor said efforts so far to attract workers have been "not too bad", though there are thousands of positions still available. 

"There are huge opportunities across the primary sectors."

He said the campaign had jobs not just in rural areas, but also in cities.

"It's not just on farm - it's in science, it's in marketing, technology, robotics, you name it. So I think that 10,000 will be easily achieved."

The recently launched campaign centres around a website that "opens the eyes of people to what huge opportunities are here", said O'Connor.

"Clearly there is a bit of uncertainty in other areas of our economy - we need people from top to bottom across agribusiness. And here's a great place to start."

With a raft of Government-funded initiative aimed at training and upskilling people, O'Connor said now was the time for those interested to dive on in.

"Go in there and you might find something that might suit you."