Relief for horticulture industry as thousands of foreign workers allowed in

The horticulture industry is breathing a sign of relief with news thousands of migrant workers will be allowed into the country to help with the harvest season.

With the country's borders closed due to COVID-19, the sector is facing a severe worker shortage and has been calling on the Government for months to let in recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers to help pick fruit.

There are normally as many as 14,000 RSE workers from Pacific countries in New Zealand during the busy harvest season, but this year there are only 4000 - leading to a industry-wide shortage of around 10,000 workers.

The problem is exacerbated by a significant drop in working holiday employees, who also play a role in filling the positions.

On Friday, the Government announced 2000 additional RSE workers would be allowed into the country early next year.

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said the workers would arrive between January and March.

"Horticulture and wine are among our largest export industries, with total exports valued at $6.5 billion in the last financial year. They also employ around 38,300 New Zealanders, many in regional New Zealand. These seasonal workers will enable the work of these New Zealanders to continue," O'Connor said.

"We accept they need help to meet labour shortages that threaten harvests this coming season, so we are acting to allow up to 2000 experienced Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme workers to come to New Zealand from certain Pacific Island countries."

He said their entry would be staggered, with workers coming in groups, due to issues with availability in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities.

In order to avoid peak demand from New Zealanders wanting to come back for Christmas, the workers would start coming in next year, O'Connor said.

Mike Chapman, chief executive of Horticulture New Zealand, said the industry was "appreciative" of the move, but expressed frustration the decision was not made earlier.

"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," Chapman said.

"The 2000 RSE workers is a positive start to addressing current seasonal labour issues but we also need to start planning for spring 2021 and harvest 2022."

Richard Palmer, chief executive of Summerfruit NZ, said the decision came "too late for the main summerfruit harvest", but added that improvements to visa processing would be helpful.

The Government's decision comes after intense lobbying by a number of groups in the sector, including Horticulture NZ, New Zealand Apples and Pears, NZ Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated and Summerfruit New Zealand.

Chapman said the groups would continue working with the Government to "improve future arrangements".

Last month growers across the country warned that without enough workers, crops would be left to rot and prices for fruit and vegetables would skyrocket.  

The Government has insisted its first priority is getting New Zealanders in to fill gaps in the labour market. Chapman says while he agrees this is a valid approach, the situation is urgent. 

"While more New Zealanders will be available for picking and packing this season, the industry is still facing a significant shortfall of seasonal workers.

"That is why horticulture will continue to work with the Government to identify opportunities to return more RSE workers to New Zealand, as MIQ capacity allows."

The Government's decision came with a number of conditions, with employers needing to meet the costs of MIQ for the workers, pay them at least $22.10 an hour, and pay them the equivalent of 30 hours a week while they are in MIQ.

The Council of Trade Unions (CTU) welcomed the announcement that workers would be paid no less than the living wage of $22.10 an hour.

"This decision sets an important precedent for employers who complain of labour shortages. Employers, regardless of industry, must do their bit to raise wages and conditions to attract people to work," said CTU president Richard Wagstaff.

"We would like to see all employers in horticulture, not just those in the RSE scheme, step up and pay the living wage to everyone they employ."

Another condition was that the countries wanting to send RSE workers to New Zealand as part of the exemption must also have agreed plans in place to take back both the workers coming under the new border exemption as well as other RSE employees already in the country when the 2020/21 season ends.

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi said he acknowledged there would be fewer seasonal workers here than in previous years, but said the Government was supporting the industry to make the most of the local workforce.