Fruit growers concerned lack of migrant workers could mean 'labour crisis' on the way

Time's running out for overseas backpackers in New Zealand.

Before lockdown, there were 65,000 people holding working holiday visas here. Around 20,000 of them are still here - but their visas are running out and the Government wants Kiwis to do their jobs.

But that could be devastating news for fruit growers.

Argentinian backpackers Martin Coccifi and Ignace Solans are desperate to carry on working here.

"There's work there and we want to work in that field as well - that's the whole point of the visa," says Solans.

They've picked fruit in Hastings for five months and are now applying for a three-month extension to their working holiday visa.

"On one hand it's good to know that you will have a job but on one other hand there's not enough people to actually take all those positions."

They're right. Traditionally backpackers and seasonal workers make up three-quarters of the workforce, doing the backbreaking work - constantly clambering up ladders to pick two tonnes of apples a day while locals toil in the packhouse. 

"To secure jobs for New Zealanders you actually need large numbers of heavy-lifting migrants doing all this hard work up front as well," says Gary Jones, of New Zealand Apples and Pears.

Orchardists say they'll be 9,000 backpackers down on the usual 16,000 when the season picks up in a couple of months.

The Government claims unemployed Kiwis can pick up the slack but the industry says that'll be a challenge.

"Next summer looks like a labour crisis, I mean 35-40 percent of our people are backpackers, working holiday makers coming for a month or two and earning some cash and tour on, and they won't be arriving," says Paul Paynter, general manager of Yummy Fruit.

Thirteen-thousand people have signed a petition demanding an extension to working holiday visas. And there's plenty of support in Hastings where losing work-hard, play-hard travellers means less spend in the city that prides itself as New Zealand's work capital. There's also the possible closure of 20 hostels.

"It's crucial for us, it's crucial for the local economy, they're still spending money and just adding general colour to the country," says Tinaka Stewart of Archie's Backpackers.

And that's colour that could soon drain from one of our rosiest crops.