Apple growing industry warns of $9.5b economic loss if borders stay closed to seasonal workers

The apple industry is warning of a NZ$9.5 billion economic loss if the government doesn't open the border to seasonal workers.

It needs about 10,000 people to start next month, for pruning and then picking.

The Hawke's Bay apple and pear sector pumps NZ$715 million into the economy each year and if the border stays firmly closed this regional economy could be brought to its knees.

Paul Paynter from Yummy Fruit is concerned about the next season. 

"We're nervous about the upcoming season, we normally have 350 harvest employees and we're wondering where they're coming from, we're terrified."

Growers like Paynter have been relying on seasonal workers from the Pacific Islands every year since 2007. 

Many say it's hard to find locals for the long hours of physical work. 

 "I'm not sure we can harvest the crops without some foreign workers," Paynter says.

"We have about 120 million apples to pick and if we're two thirds down on our workforce there's a lot that's going to be left behind."  

Fruit growers, wine producers and council leaders are meeting this week to try and find a solution to the lack of staff. 

Ideas include using unemployed kiwis, students and prisoners on day release, but even that wouldn't be enough to fill the huge void. 

Alan Pollard from NZ Apples and Pears doesn't think the proposed ideas will work. 

"None of those are going to deliver enough people we need to actually harvest our crop on time for the quality we need." 

Last year, 14,000 recognised seasonal workers did that work.

Rex Graham, Hawke's Bay Regional Council Chair is also worried about the impact the closed border has on the region's economy. 

"Our economy is really diverse and really resilient but if we don't get these RSE's that all changes, we as an economy are in trouble."

The Government loosened its tight border restrictions slightly last week, and extended visas for workers already over here.

But there's no plan to let in the thousands of seasonal workers, only a plan for Kiwis to step up.

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi is in support of Kiwis taking the employment opportunities with growers. 

"Our borders are closed for a good reason, to keep us safe. As a result of Covid New Zealanders are losing their jobs and we need to do everything we can to find them work too," Faafoi said. 

The industry doesn't agree and says allowing workers to enter New Zealand from the Pacific Islands is a no-brainer. 

Pollard says the likelihood of people from the Pacific Islands bringing COVID-19 into the country is low. 

"Bear in mind these are islands with no COVID-19 at all so the risk to New Zealand by bringing these workers back is very very low, if not near zero."

Hawke's Bay growers are desperately hoping a meeting with the minister later this month will provide a more promising answer to their enormous problem.