Horticulture industry 'very grateful' for response from local job seekers, but concerns over worker shortage remain

There has been a "fantastic increase" in the number of Kiwis applying for jobs in the horticulture industry in recent weeks, though concerns remain whether it will be enough to fix the sector's labour shortage.

Industry-side there is a shortfall of around 10,000 workers for this season's harvest, with recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers from the Pacific unable to enter New Zealand due to COVID-19.

Late last month the Government announced a scheme offering Kiwis a $1000 incentive to try their hand at seasonal work, in a bid to fill some of those empty positions.

It also said 2000 RSE workers would be given border exemptions between January and March to help pick fruit.

On Monday, Summerfruit NZ chief executive Richard Palmer told Newshub he had seen a "fantastic increase in New Zealanders applying for roles during the harvest".

However, he said "at this point in time we cannot attribute it to a specific incentive".

Last week industry groups were criticised by First Union for not responding to jobseekers interested in applying for roles. Positions advertised were also said to lack specific details around what was required in the roles.

Palmer said the response had been "much greater" than anticipated and stressed the industry was "working hard to clear a logjam of applications that have overwhelmed some growers".

"However, it is concerning and we apologise to those who have not been responded to and advise them to not give up applying as the season is a long one and more vacancies will occur as it ramps up," he said.

He said the Kiwis had "responded to our call fantastically" and the sector was "very grateful" for the influx.

"We are optimistic that there will be enough people at the start of the harvest season and hopeful that as the season ramps up there will be enough people keen to stay on until the end of the summerfruit harvest. 

"We also hope that large numbers of people will want to carry on as the next crops begin their harvest and maybe even consider a career in horticulture," he said.

As well as offering the $1000 incentive - which would be given to people who complete six weeks or more of work - the Government also said it would contribute $200 per week for accommodation costs, and increase "wet weather payments" when people can't work to reflect minimum wage.

Not all in the industry are so positive however. Many are concerned there are still not enough New Zealanders interested in working in the sector and that the 2000 foreign RSE workers given border exemptions is not enough.

There have also been complaints the additional RSE workers won't arrive in time for crops with early harvests.

The Government said the workers were not let in this year as priority in the limited managed isolation facilities would be given to New Zealanders coming home for Christmas.

On Monday, ACT leader David Seymour said the Government had done "too little too late" and said industry groups should be allowed to set up private managed isolation facilities to accommodate incoming workers.