Lack of migrant workers leads to 'widespread frustration' in horticulture industry

Frustration is mounting in the horticulture industry with migrant workers unable to enter the country in time for the upcoming harvest season.

Normally there would be as many as 14,000 recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers in the country for the busy season, but with the borders closed that number is only around 4000. 

John Johnston, investment director at Milford Asset Management, says the labour shortage could have severe impacts on the industry.

"We're about going to find out if we're short or not," Johnston told The AM Show on Thursday. 

"Certainly the RSE migrant labour scheme being effectively closed at the moment is a massive risk factor for cherries for the next two months."

Milford Asset Management owns half of 45 South, the country's largest cherry grower and exporter.

Johnston said the earlier varieties of cherries were fruiting now, and harvesting had started this week, though the bulk of the cherry harvest would take place in December and January.

Earlier this month, Richard Palmer, chief executive of Summerfruit New Zealand, said cherry growers were "pretty stressed" at the prospect of having to leave fruit to rot if there weren't enough people to pick it.

Johnston said it would be known in a month or so if there were enough workers or not.

"We have both fingers and toes crossed hoping we'll get enough from New Zealanders and remaining backpackers. But for scale comparison, [for] apples and kiwifruit, which follow cherries in February, March, April,  they're many times the size in terms of demand for labour. So for those guys just muddling through with Kiwis looks very unlikely."

The horticulture industry is currently waiting on a decision from the Government about if and when RSE workers might be allowed into the country, but Jacinda Ardern earlier this week signalled it wouldn't be 'this side of Christmas'.

Any workers entering the country need to go into quarantine for two weeks, but 

The limited space available in managed isolation facilities would be prioritised for New Zealanders, Ardern said, adding that the Government was looking at what could be done "leading into March".

Horticulture New Zealand earlier this month said there was an industry-wide shortfall of around 10,000 workers.

Johnston said frustration was mounting in the industry.

"There's widespread frustration, certainly amongst the apple and kiwifruit community in addition to cherries," he said.

The Government is expected to announce its decision about RSE workers this week.