Frustration from worker turned down by orchards amid ongoing labour shortage

A job hunter in the South Island has expressed frustration after being turned down for numerous horticulture jobs despite the sector repeatedly saying how desperate it is for workers.

Harry Goetz, from Tuatapere in Southland, lost his job at the local sawmill last March when COVID-19 hit.

Since then he has been looking for work continuously, but without luck.

Since October, he has applied for a number of jobs on orchards in Central Otago only to be repeatedly told the positions had already been filled.

Now, as news of an ongoing labour shortage in the horticulture sector continues to make headlines, Goetz says he can't understand why he can't find work.

"I think it's bullshit," he told Newshub. 

"You've just applied for a job and they say 'no' and then on TV you see that we need 2000 overseas workers."

New Zealand relies heavily on foreign workers - recognised seasonal (RSE) workers, who primarily come from Pacific countries - and backpackers during the harvest season to pick and pack fruit on orchards around the country. With our border effectively closed due to COVID-19, however, the industry has been warning for months of a looming labour shortage.

Late last year, the Government said it would give border exemptions for 2000 RSE workers to enter the country starting in January. Growers say while that is a help, it is not enough. 

Richard Palmer, chief executive of Summerfruit New Zealand, says RSE workers are valued because they already have skills and experience in the sector, and historically low unemployment in Central Otago means it's traditionally harder to recruit locals for seasonal work in the region, leading to a greater dependence on foreign workers.

He told Newshub the summerfruit industry, which comprises apricots, cherries, nectarines, peaches and plums, had been working since spring to raise public awareness of the worker shortage.

"The response overall across the summerfruit regions of Hawke's Bay, Marlborough and Central Otago has been fantastic and many growers and packers received far more applications than they would normally expect at this time of year," Palmer said.

"Nevertheless, there were still orchards in more remote areas that had difficulty in attracting sufficient numbers of staff."

Although there was work available, he said opportunities were heavily dependent on timing and weather conditions.

"As the season begins according to when the fruit ripens, starting dates can be quite changeable. While there may not have been jobs early on in Central Otago, there was plenty of work available once the season began around mid-December," he said.

"Ideally the Central Otago cherry season runs for approximately six weeks, but the heavy rain in early January devastated much of the crop with losses of around 50 percent of the harvest. This meant some orchards had to leave whole blocks unpicked as the cherries were ruined and, unfortunately, had to let harvest staff go earlier than expected. 

"Early-season cherry crop estimates suggested our largest ever crop was on its way. If that had been the case, It is unlikely that there would have been sufficient staff available to pick and pack the crop."

Earlier this week, Citrus New Zealand board member James Williams told The AM Show there was high competition among employers to find local workers amid the labour shortage, which had led to many orchards offering incentives such as cash bonuses and free lunches. Average pay in the horticulture industry was also around 20 percent higher than minimum wage, he said.

But Goetz said that despite his willingness and the desperate need for workers, his constant rejections "just makes you wonder" at the situation.

He believes his age - 65 - is most likely the reason why he has been turned away, but insists he's as good a worker as any.

"Just because I'm 65 doesn't mean I can't work anymore."

He said had been doing physical labour for 50 years and was no stranger to a hard day's work.

"I told some employers, I would be the perfect employee because I don't drink, I don't smoke so there's no extra breaks, I don't do illegal drugs - never have. What else do you want? I've got two hands and two feet."

Originally from Germany, Goetz has lived in New Zealand for "getting on 40 years now". After working his whole life he's now finding it hard to be without a job, and says he's willing to travel anywhere within the South Island for work.

"I was continuously employed for 40 years here in New Zealand plus another 10 years in Germany -  I'm not used to being unemployed."

Although he's determined to keep searching for a job - on Friday he was heading to Invercargill to speak with an employment agency - he said it's "getting harder and harder".

Palmer said the summerfruit season was now "slowing down" and encouraged people looking for opportunities to move on to other crops such as apples and pears, grapes and kiwifruit, whose peak harvest season was approaching.

Although many of those sectors have their own websites advertising work, he encouraged people to check out the Work The Seasons website to see vacancies across the country industry-wide.