Govt must admit it's 'not doing enough to protect' horticulture sector as worker shortage remains - ACT

The ACT Party is urging the Government to take up Hawke's Bay horticulturists' idea of establishing a managed isolation facility close to the businesses and let in more foreign workers.

Leader David Seymour says such a measure is necessary to "stave off the likelihood of crops rotting on the ground", as the sector faces a labour shortage.

Late last month the Government announced it would be letting in 2000 recognised seasonal employers (RSE) workers from Pacific countries early next year to pick fruit during the harvest season.

The move came after industry groups had repeatedly warned the worker shortage would have dire consequences for the sector.

There are normally as many as 14,000 RSE workers in the country to help with the busy harvest season, but this year due to our borders being closed there are only around 4000 - leading to an industry-wide shortfall of approximately 10,000 workers. 

The Government has been trying to recruit Kiwi workers to fill those positions - even going as far to offer a $1000 incentive for people who try their hand at the job - but the shortage remains.

In announcing the border exemptions Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said the workers would be allowed to enter New Zealand between January and March.

They would not be allowed to come earlier so as to avoid peak demand in managed isolation facilities from New Zealanders wanting to come back for Christmas, he said.

On Monday, documents shown to RNZ revealed a marketing campaign in October aiming to attract 300 New Zealand workers had only led to 55 people getting work.

According to the documents, Bostock New Zealand, the country's largest organic apple producer, told ministers 227 people applied for work at the company based on the campaign. All of those people were contacted to move their applications forward but only 77 of them responded, with 22 people withdrawing their applications and 55 eventually getting jobs. Despite multiple attempts to contact them, 150 people failed to respond at all after their initial application, the company said.

Seymour said the company's experience showed more foreign workers were needed.

"We've been highlighting for weeks that the export fruit producers helping prop up our economy are desperate for people with the right skills to manage their crops and pick their produce.

"What those businesses have received is a too-little too-late half measure from the Government with 2000 workers from the Pacific trickling in from January," he said.

"That’s a fraction of what's needed, with just one Hawke's Bay apple producer needing 300 workers but so far only managing to attract 55 locals. How many of them will last more than two weeks in the field?"

According to RNZ, the Hawke's Bay horticulture industry is lobbying the Government for a managed isolation facility in Hastings to house RSE workers. It has suggested using Angus Inn, an old hotel, which has room for around 300 workers at a time.

According to the documents, the hotel was assessed by the Hawke's Bay DHB and confirmed to be a "potentially suitable isolation facility", however as of yet it has not been approved by the Government.

Seymour said the idea should be seriously considered.

"The very least the Government can do is take the Hastings Angus Inn managed isolation facility proposal seriously and admit it's not doing enough to protect an important sector of our economy."

The horticulture industry has welcomed the Government's decision to let in the RSE workers but warned it has come too late for fruits with early summer crops and will not fill all the gaps.