Border exemptions for horticulture workers came after ad campaign failed to attract Kiwis

John Bostock, owner of Bostock New Zealand.
John Bostock, owner of Bostock New Zealand. Photo credit: RNZ

By Tom Kitchin of RNZ

An apple exporter in the Hawke's Bay has told the government an advertising campaign to attract 300 New Zealand workers received more than 200 applications, but only 55 people got jobs.

The figures are part of the business case the region's fruit growers used to argue for foreign seasonal workers to be allowed into the country, despite Covid-19 restrictions.

Next year, 2000 seasonal pickers will arrive from the Pacific in the New Year but the industry said it would still be well short and many locals simply were not suitable for the jobs.

Bostock New Zealand is the largest organic apple producer in the country.

In documents released to RNZ, Bostock told ministers it ran a marketing campaign in October on TV, social media, traditional backpacker boards and seasonal worker websites.

By the end of October, it reached nearly 600,000 people.

The company had 227 applications and all of them were contacted to move their application forward.

The company had 77 people respond, in which 55 got jobs and 22 people withdrew their applications.

Despite multiple attempts to contact them, 150 people did not respond after their initial application.

Bostock New Zealand said based on these figures, it would have to extend its reach massively from 600,000 to over 3.1 million people to achieve their goal of finding an extra 300 seasonal staff.

That was not far off the total working-age population in New Zealand - 3.9 million people.

Tough work on the fields

To pick a hectare of apples, a picker must climb over 20 vertical kilometres while carrying 60 metric tonnes of fruit.

A worker would have to fill 15kg buckets while going down ladders of more than 2 metres long.

Historically, NZ workers make up 79 percent of the indoor packing workforce.

But that was the complete opposite for the outdoor harvest, where migrant workers made up 79 percent of workers.

The companies said there were many reasons why New Zealanders were not suitable for the work: they're not available for as long as they need to be, not fit for the job, underage, could not commit to the job or had family or animal/pet obligations that could not fit around the work.

Bostock gave the government some examples:

  • Person A and Person B - working full time but were free over the Christmas break. However, thinning finishes at Christmas and picking would not begin until early February so the timing did not work.
  • Person C - applied saying she was not very fit, but had three weeks free over the Christmas break and wanted to give it a go. She also had some allergies and asthma. After having an honest discussion about the physicality of the job and that picking would only be available during the final week of her holiday, she decided not to progress her application.
  • Person D - applied from Indonesia, worked as an RSE before and would like to come back, but Bostock could not accept any overseas applications due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
  • Person E - the 15-year-old and wants a summer job while school is out. Because seasonal employees were required to be 16 or over, Bostock could not progress his application.
  • Person F - working remotely and would like to travel to Hawke's Bay and stay in Bostock accommodation, but was only available to work for a few hours in the evenings Monday to Friday as he already had a full-time job. Unfortunately due to the nature of the available roles and timings, Bostock was not able to accommodate his requirements.
  • Person G - wanted to bring her family of four (two adults plus a 12-year-old and 14-year-old) to Hawke's Bay for a short family holiday and wanted to find work for all four of them for a fortnight. Because Bostock required seasonal workers to be 16 or over, they were unable to offer work to the two children, meaning an adult would also be unavailable to work as they would be with them.

The risks for companies

The Hawke's Bay companies told the government not picking the fruit could lead to big losses and "far-reaching consequences".

They feared there would be a reduction in regional spending and the investments in new permanent staff or capital equipment would "drop away".

The companies told the government that Cromwell needed a new cherry packhouse in 2022 to cope with demand and Hawke's Bay needed cool storage for thousands of tonnes of apples.

They said the appetite for investment, both by the sector, and bankers, would be curtailed by the 2021 season if crops were not harvested.

What more can be done?

The Hawke's Bay horticulture industry is lobbying the government for a managed isolation in Hastings to house RSE workers.

They would use Angus Inn, an old hotel, which the industry said could house around 300 workers at a time.

Hawke's Bay DHB assessed the facility, guided by a Ministry of Health checklist for isolation facilities.

The DHB submitted a report to the Apple and Pear Board confirming its support of the Angus Inn premises as a "potentially suitable isolation facility".

The orchardists said staff onsite had a "good understanding and awareness" of the requirements, as they looked after RSE workers in the level 4 lockdown.

But officials would need to consider the ability of staff to undertake daily health checks and swabbing.

They would also need to make sure there was enough laboratory capacity to manage testing demand.

The documents said orchardists wanted to have it running by the first week of December but it has not yet been approved.