Horticulture sector told no foreign workers 'this side of Christmas' as labour shortage concerns mount

Any hopes the horticulture industry had of desperately needed foreign workers being allowed into the country before Christmas were dashed on Tuesday, with Jacinda Ardern saying any space in managed isolation facilities ahead of the holiday season would be prioritised for Kiwis.

The horticulture sector relies heavily on foreign recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers to help pick fruit during the busy harvest season. But with the country's borders closed due to COVID-19, there is a massive labour shortage this year.

The industry has been urging the Government to allow in foreign workers for months, warning that without enough workers crops may end up being left to rot.

But speaking to media at the Primary Industries Summit in Wellington on Tuesday, the Prime Minister said it was not likely exemptions would be made for the sector in the coming month. 

"We're absolutely aware that particularly for the horticulture sector they need certainty - so regardless of what the decision is they need to hear that rather soon," Ardern said.

"What we have said to them though is that this side of Christmas we have to focus on New Zealanders. 

"We've all seen the demand, they absolutely understand that, and have really acknowledged that the pressure right now into the Christmas period is for Kiwis, but we're talking about what we can do leading into March, which is when they have a lot of pressure on for their picking season."

A spokesperson for Horticulture New Zealand told Newshub "the industry is waiting for the Government to announce its decision, whatever that might be". 

Earlier this month Horticulture New Zealand president Barry O'Neil said industry-wide it was estimated there was a shortfall of around 10,000 workers.

He called on the Government to let in workers from Pacific countries immediately before product went to waste.

Ardern on Tuesday dismissed reports that there were vacancies in managed isolation facilities, saying hotels were almost at full capacity coming up to the holiday season.

Even if there were some vacancies, she said, there was not enough space to accommodate the thousands of workers the industry needed.

"And we're talking vacancies in the lead up to Christmas, essentially we don't have them," she said.

"And if we do they are very, very small numbers - certainly not at the scale that the horticulture sector is asking for."

The horticulture industry is not the only sector battling worker shortages, there is also a lack of skilled machinery operators. 

And though the Government recently granted more than 200 critical workers in that industry visas in order to help with the summer harvest, Rural Contractors New Zealand last month said due to demand in managed isolation facilities more than 60 of those workers would be unable to get spots in hotels here until February. The organisation's chief executive Roger Parton said by then it would be too late for the harvest season.