Border exemptions for migrant workers criticised as 'too late' to stem horticulture labour shortage

Opposition parties say the Government's decision to allow migrant workers into the country for the harvest season has come too late, and warn food will be left to rot due to the delay.

Two-thousand recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers will be granted border exemptions from early next year to work in the horticulture and viticulture sectors, the Government announced on Friday.

The decision comes after months of pressure from the industry groups, which have warned a severe worker shortage could have dire consequences for this year's harvest.

There are normally as many as 14,000 RSE workers in the country to help pick fruit during the busy summer months. But with the country's borders closed due to COVID-19, there are currently only around 4000 workers here - leaving a shortfall of 10,000.

The situation has been exacerbated by a massive drop in working holiday makers, who also normally account for a large number of workers.

ACT leader David Seymour said the Government's announcement should be welcomed, but says it's "too late for some businesses".

"Bringing RSE workers into the country two months late is like allowing sailors to come halfway through the America’s Cup," he said.

"Why not allow COVID-free workers from the Pacific to come here now? There's no good reason.

"This situation was entirely foreseeable. Horticulturalists need overseas workers to pick fruit every year. The Government knew that growers would need to recruit from overseas at this time of the year. What has it been doing for the last six months?"

National's spokesperson for COVID-19 response Chris Bishop said the move was "just a drop in the bucket of what is actually needed".

"Overall this is a poor deal for New Zealand's horticulture industry, for New Zealand, and for the RSE workers themselves.

"Firstly, 2000 workers is not enough, it's less than one seventh of quota (which is more than 14,000) of RSE workers the sector would normally have available to pick these key export products.

"Secondly, it’s far too little and far too late. Spring and early summer crops have already missed out on these workers, but the Government has known about these problems for months, and is only acting at the eleventh hour."

In announcing the decision, Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said workers would be allowed to start arriving in January, and would come in groups until March, due to limited space in the country's managed isolation and quarantine facilities.

The January start date was "to avoid peak holiday demand from New Zealanders wanting to return for Christmas," he said.

As part of the deal, employers would have to foot the bill for workers' managed isolation as well as pay them the equivalent of 30 hours' work during their stay in isolation. They also needed to pay them at least $22.10 an hour for their labour.

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi acknowledged there would be fewer RSE workers than normal this year, but stressed the Government was taking steps to support the industry to make the most of the onshore workforce.

A number of incentives were announced on Friday aimed at luring unemployed Kiwis into the sector, such as offering a $1000 payment to anyone who works six weeks or more in the industry.

'A good first step'

The horticulture Industry has welcomed the decision, but also expressed concerns that some crops with earlier harvest times would suffer.

"This announcement won't solve our labour deficit challenge, but goes some way to helping to reduce it," Alan Pollard, chief executive of New Zealand Apples & Pears, said on Friday.

Horticulture New Zealand said it was "appreciative" of the decision but also highlighted the fact only crops with later harvest seasons would benefit.

"While the timing of the Government's decision means that spring and early summer crops have missed out, growers across the country are relieved that some of the essential workers needed from low COVID-risk Pacific countries are being let in," said Hort NZ chief executive Mike Chapman.

Business Central said the move was "a good first step" but called for a "resumption in the full RSE scheme albeit wirth COVID quarantine protocols". 

"This will take the total number of recognised seasonal employer workers in New Zealand to just under 7000," said John Milford, chief executive of Business Central.

"While that is a significant number, it is nowhere near the number we usually have around this time of year."