Rural contractors issue dire warning over lack of skilled migrant workers

By Katie Todd of RNZ

Rural contractors warn crops will die in fields and stock could go unfed, if the Government can't make room in managed isolation hotels for skilled migrant workers.

One week since managed isolation bookings became mandatory to enter the country, capacity for the country's border hotels is at a pinch point, with most returnees facing at least seven-week waits.

Crop growers around the country breathed a sigh of relief in September when the Government granted more than 200 critical worker visas to machinery operators who could help with their summer harvest.

But things hit a snag last week, when managed isolation vouchers became mandatory to enter the country.

Demand for the country's 32 border hotels spiked and Rural Contractors New Zealand said 61 workers had been unable to get spots in hotels until February.

Chief executive Roger Parton said it would be too late by then, as the harvest would be over.

"Millions of tonnes of silage will not be made and of course later on in the year that is what feeds the cattle. And also, as you see over various years we have droughts and we have to move feed into it to make sure the animals are fed and able to survive. Otherwise it's a huge impact on the dairy industry and on the beef industry as well," he said.

Parton said the lack of space was a surprise after the Government promised to set aside 10 percent of the managed isolation rooms specifically for critical workers.

"We need 61 rooms, and we need them urgently. Now I appreciate there's huge pressure on the isolation facilities and there are people with a number of very valid reasons but I mean, if we can bring in sports teams we can bring in some of these people as well," he said.

Yesterday, the booking backlog for the country's border hotels eased a little when the Government released an extra 100 rooms a day in the lead up to Christmas.

It said spaces had been set aside to guard against a spike in demand and would be released daily on a first in first served basis.

At the post-Cabinet briefing, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told people wanting to do managed isolation before December to keep trying their luck.

She said other spaces become available every so often, due to the website's automatic 48-hour hold on new bookings.

"We've made sure that what happens first is the ability for someone to reserve a space, while they then go and book their flight. Of course what we wouldn't want is the reverse situation where people are booking flights and then unable to access a voucher," she said.

Booking woes

Mary Joy Dicuangco and her husband decided to try their luck and wait for a booking, in a bid to get back from the Philippines in December - finding it wasn't as straightforward as they expected.

"We waited and we refreshed our laptop every 10 seconds. It was just a waiting game. We've done that for three days straight ... 24/7, without sleep."

They finally managed to secure a spot in a managed isolation hotel in mid-December but Dicuangco said the system was confusing, and down to luck.

That's something Hugh agreed with, after trying to get his 19-year-old daughter home for summer from the United States, where she had just finished high school.

He was taken by total surprise by the booking backlog, which meant his daughter could now only be free from managed isolation in February one day before she starts university.

"It's a confusing message. We're told that there's plenty of spaces available but when we go to the website there are just no vacancies," he said.

The Government has said it does not plan to add any extra spaces in managed isolation.

It said the constraint was not the hotels, but the essential workforce of doctors, nurses and defence force staff who care for the returnees.