Rural contractors 'slightly panicking' as skilled machinery operators unable to enter country

Rural contractors are panicking because hundreds of overseas workers can't get into the country. 

The sector relies on highly skilled agricultural drivers from the Northern Hemisphere that come to New Zealand every year, chasing the sun and the work. 

Now, preparations are underway for a harvest season like no other.

"[There's] an element of panic when we know there are a few key operators that are literally waiting in the Northern Hemisphere to come to us, so yeah we are still slightly panicking," says Wairarapa contractor Rhys Scott.

And no workers equals no money. 

"There’s a chance that a lot of those businesses…. they couldn’t get a lot of those top skilled drivers, it might face them to go broke really, it could be a difficult time for them," says Andrew Tulloch, another contractor in Wairarapa. 

Some contracting companies hire up to 20 overseas workers each season with the skills and experience to drive big and expensive machinery. They told Newshub that they’ve been advertising for weeks, but can't find New Zealanders to fill the jobs. 

There’s worries that without the workers the machinery will sit in the shed, and millions of dollars of work will be lost.

"We need these people otherwise we can’t do the work and we can’t fulfil the contracts we’ve got with the farmers to process their paddocks," says Roger Parton, chief executive of Rural Contractors New Zealand.

"The offshoot of that is people might use unskilled operators to drive these machines and there is a horrible accident - and that's the last thing we want."

Tulloch needs a couple more skilled operators, and says they’re expecting a long season ahead.

"[There's] just pressure on staff really, it's a bad thing that could impact us - everyone can only do so much work."

Minister for Immigration Kris Faafoi is aware of the worker shortage, but says the Government’s priority is to minimise unemployment and see New Zealanders, who have lost their jobs, given opportunities to re-train and fill gaps in the local job market.

The National Party says it has a solution. 

"We've got pilots unemployed; if the minister had an ounce of common sense he'd have thought you need well-qualified, experienced clever people driving machinery like this," says National leader Judith Collins.

The Opposition is estimating a shortage of 2000 workers for the planting and cropping season, and is blaming Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor. 

"The minister has neglected his role of actually dealing with those issues and training people to do it," says National’s primary production spokesperson, David Bennett. 

The industry says it has been busy training workers, but, says Parton, "it's a bit like giving someone a private plane licence and telling them to go fly a jumbo jet - it's a whole different ball game".

And contractors are hoping that with an election looming, their problems won't be swept under the rug. 

Scott says they "just want to be taken seriously".

"We still have a major role to play, we're not doing it for the glitz and the glamour because there is none - it is simply going into it with a rural mind and a rural focus to help the rural people."