High competition leads to 'eye-watering' hourly rates for fruit pickers, but there's still few takers

With a shortage of fruit pickers this harvest season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some growers are digging deep in a bid to attract much-needed workers.

As well as offering cash bonuses and free lunches, average pay is around 20 percent above the minimum wage, says Citrus New Zealand board member James Williams.

But despite the incentives, orchardists are still battling to find enough labour.

"We're just struggling a bit for pickers in general - not just citrus but right across the board in the Gisborne region and around New Zealand," Williams told The AM Show on Wednesday.

"There's a lot of competition going on."

Usually, New Zealand relies heavily on recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers from the Pacific Islands to pick fruit during the busy harvest season. Foreign backpackers also fill a large number of the jobs. But with the country's borders still effectively closed, there is a worker shortfall of thousands. 

Although the Government has agreed to let in 2000 RSE workers to help stem the shortage, the horticulture industry says that's not enough to fix the problem.

Williams says with millions of dollars of product potentially at risk if pickers can't be found, the worker shortage is "literally putting the squeeze on everybody."

His greatest fear is that fruit will end up being left to rot because of a lack of hands.

"That's the worst thing you can do," he says.

"That's the biggest cost, leaving something on the tree. And that's why we're seeing some advertisements out there for labour that are just eye-watering levels [of] hourly rates. Because leaving them on the tree, you might leave a couple of million dollars worth of fruit on an apple block - you just can't go there."

With the stakes so high, Williams says the cheapest thing for growers to do "is just to pay more and get the labour".

"So the crop that needs it the most, that has fruit to come off, they're the ones that will stick their neck out at the time and pay a lot. But it lifts the bar for all other crops."

Williams says many companies are also doing their own van pick-up and providing lunches for workers too.

"There's a lot of incentives being offered. It's almost commonplace now for orchardists to offer a $100 a week bonus for anybody that can do their 40 hours a week." 

He says his own company is paying pickers around $25-26 an hour, with contractors earning "north of $40 an hour".

"I would say the average is 20 percent above minimum wage at the moment in the horticulture sector."

Late last year the Government also said it would chip in with a $1000 incentive for people who take up seasonal work for a minimum of six weeks. It also offered support to cover accommodation costs and "wet weather payments" in a bid to help convince people to try their hand in the sector.

Despite the incentives, however, Kiwis aren't exactly beating down the door so far.

Williams says that may come down to the difficult nature of the work.

"It is hard physical work and there's a lot of people there that just don't want to, that can't turn up for five days a week," he says.

"I look back 10 years or 20 years and I see the level of production that workers used to knock out and it's very rare to find people performing at that same level today."

He said most of the jobs in question were advertised on Facebook, rather than on Seek or TradeMe, and information is also available on the Work The Seasons website