Immigration changes not enough to fix shortage of RSE workers for fruit picking season

Immigration changes not enough to fix shortage of RSE workers for fruit picking season

By RNZ's Morning Report

A leading New Zealand fruit harvesting organisation says even with the changes to immigration policy there will not be enough Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers in New Zealand to support a full harvest in February. 

The government announced visa changes and border exemptions to allow more overseas workers in the agriculture and horticulture industries to fill key jobs in New Zealand.

Gary Jones, business development manager for New Zealand Apples and Pears, told Morning Report there's usually around 45,000-50,000 working holiday scheme people in the country during the harvest.

The government's changes allows in around 20 percent of what the industry would expect, he said.

Finding New Zealanders to fill these jobs isn't simple as they don't necessarily want to travel around regions, working for a few weeks in a seasonal industry, he said.

Very few people would give up a full time job to take up seasonal work, he said.

"We're trying to make it more attractive by bringing in opportunities for them."

Last year on average, fruit pickers earned $21-22 an hour but money isn't always the answer, he said.

Jones says $900 million of export earnings is important to the region and the economy.

The job involves heavy lifting and a lot of climbing, which not everyone is able to do, he said.

"It's tough work."

Jones says 80 percent of pickers are migrant workers, 80 percent of packers are New Zealanders.

The industry can be part of New Zealand's Covid-19 recovery story, Jones said.

Meanwhile, Federated Farmers warn that the new immigration policy for agriculture and fisheries workers has missed a crucial group: shearers.

Although some skilled labourers can now enter New Zealand to operate complex machinery like combine harvesters or fill vital veterinary roles, a lack of experienced shearers could see 180,000 sweltering sheep are left unshorn each week this summer.

Employment spokesperson for Federated Farmers Chris Lewis told Morning Report it's an animal health issue.

"The wool needs to come off at the right time, if it doesn't ... it gets a bit warm for them ... they can suffer from fly-strike which is the animal welfare issue, the biggest one."

Lewis says 100-200 shearers might be needed.

Farmers will feel the pressure in January and February when it starts to get very hot, he said.