Growers concerned border exceptions won't ease labour shortage but dairy sector reassured

 The horticulture industry is still short about 5000 to 6000 workers.
The horticulture industry is still short about 5000 to 6000 workers. Photo credit: Getty

Fruit and vegetable growers say visa extensions for temporary workers do little to help the looming shortage of seasonal workers for this summer's harvest.

In changes to border exceptions announced this week the Government said some temporary work visa holders who had strong links to New Zealand would be allowed to return.

It also said seasonal workers from the Pacific Islands who had been unable to leave would be allowed to stay and work for another six months.

This would help about 5000 people who were employed under the Recognised Seasonal Employer, or RSE scheme, to find new jobs. Unable to work because their visa had expired, many are reliant on charity provided by the Red Cross for the basics such as food and clothing.

However, the horticulture industry was still short of about 5000 to 6000 RSE workers they needed to pick all the crops at the peak of the season, Apple and Pears business development manager Gary Jones said.

"We are short, and there is very real concern about being able to harvest crops, as we move into summer fruit ... and we really want to work with Government as quickly as possible to ensure that we can harvest these crops in good time."

There was an urgent need to facilitate a travel bubble with COVID-free Pacific nations to allow more workers to arrive, he said, especially because the predicted large number of locals unemployed as a result of the virus did not appear to have manifested.

"We are doing everything we can to identify a supply of workers. There has been a view early on with COVID that there was going to be large, large numbers of unemployed. I don't think we are really seeing that in the regions."

Some crops, especially kiwifruit and wine, also heavily rely on about 40,000 backpackers on working-holiday visas for the peak harvest season.

But less than half that number remained in the country.

Minister of Immigration Kris Faafoi was understood to be considering a plea from growers to grant a further extension to working holiday visa holders to allow them to work in the horticulture and wine industries.

A decision was also on the table which could possibly allow RSE workers to carry out their two-week managed isolation in facilities run by their employers, rather than in government-run hotels.

New border exception 'gives farm employers certainty' - DairyNZ

Meanwhile, the dairy industry thinks about 40 highly skilled herd managers will be allowed back into the country because of border border exceptions announced yesterday.

Faafoi said visa holders - who must have retained their job or business in New Zealand, plus their partners and dependent children - will be able to apply for this exception from early October when the new category opens.

A spokesperson for the minister's office said while this was not targeted at any one sector, it was thought some visa holders who worked in agriculture would qualify.

The Government expected up to 850 visa holders may be eligible for this category.

Industry group DairyNZ had been pleading to get skilled staff stuck overseas back into the country.

Its chief executive, Tim Mackle, said the announcement meant some skilled migrant dairy farm employees would be able to return from overseas.

"This is a real breakthrough for migrants who meet the criteria and gives their farm employers certainty to plan for the future."

Dr Mackle said many of the affected workers had spent years building their lives in New Zealand and developed some really good skills.

"So they are highly skilled dairy workers, they are managers effectively and people who run farms so the owners have been doing it tough [without them]."

However, there was still a looming shortage of people to fill in entry-level positions, he said.

"We'll certainly be turning our attention back to the several thousand temporary work visa holders who are on our farms right now.... some of those [visas] will start to expire by early next year and we really need to get into gear and sort that out so we can keep our farms running."